San Antonio fire union to sue city over alleged First Amendment violation
The union is suing the city for violating the First Amendment rights of firefighters gathering signatures at a public library earlier this year
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — At a hastily called press conference Thursday, San Antonio firefighters’ union boss Chris Steele announced plans to sue the city for violating the First Amendment rights of firefighters gathering signatures on three charter amendment petitions at a public library earlier this year.
City spokesman Jeff Coyle, who attended the press conference, said immediately afterward that there’s lengthy case law upholding the city’s right to regulate free speech, pointing to language within a 2013 memo that the union had distributed, and adding that the announcement was nothing more than a political stunt.
“What I think this is about today is an effort to distract from the union’s own negative publicity. If any of you all have been following the Express-News’ coverage of the union, it’s been reported for several days now that the fire union has not been appropriately disclosing or reporting its political activity,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing is the union calling a press conference today about something months ago that case law has long since decided in our favor.”
Before the press conference began, Steele and others huddled near a lectern they’d set up a few hundred feet away from the entrance to the Julia Yates Semmes Library, the Judson Road branch on the Northeast Side.
That location was selected because it’s where the union’s paid signature gatherers were relocated after they attempted to work near the library’s entrance during voting in the March primary.
Steele opened his brief remarks by reciting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I repeated those words on March 8 of this year when I stood in this exact same location, denouncing the mayor and the city attorney’s actions to limit the right of San Antonians to exercise their First-Amendment-protected right,” Steele said.
A copy of the union’s suit, which, as of Thursday evening had yet to be filed with the court, laid out several anecdotes of the city enforcing its free-speech zone policy.
“On March 8th, petition circulators placed a small table off to the side of the covered walkway at the Julia Semmes Library — the same area that local candidates had been allowed to campaign in a few days prior,” the document states. “Nevertheless, library personnel told the petition circulators that a different rule applied to them: they could only engage in petitioning activity on the other side of the parking lot and near a pet relief area almost 300 feet away from the door.”
Steele distributed a copy of a 2013 memo from Library Director Ramiro Salazar, which explains the city’s policy on the exercise of free speech at public libraries.
The memo states that the library system has the right to regulate free-speech activities “on the basis of ‘time, place, and manner,’ to protect other public purposes.”
Coyle said the memo underscores the library’s right to set up free speech zones and explains how they should be created: “Such Free Speech Areas should be selected to allow for a full range of freedom of speech activities while also affording adequate to (sic) protection to the efficient functioning of the library.”
He said it was ironic that the union was claiming it was being treated differently and handed out a 2013 memo that outlined the city’s policy on constitutionally protected activities at libraries — written several years before the petition campaign.
“The First Amendment allows libraries to regulate political activity on their property. It’s long-since been decided by the courts, many, many times,” Coyle said. “Every single one of our libraries has a free-speech zone where people conducting political activities are required to be. The purpose is to prevent blocking access to the library for people who just want to come here and rent books (and) from being stopped and harassed over political issues.”
Steele, however, said the union has “pointed out the fallacy of the policy in their own words.”
“It is supposed to allow for free-speech activities, including campaigning, political statements, announcements, speeches and distributing of literature,” Steele said. “So tell me, Mr. Mayor, how do you distribute literature or give someone the chance to sign a petition when you cannot be any closer to them than a football field? ... This is where we were told if we came any closer, we would be arrested.”
John Hatch, founder of Texas Petition Strategies, said after the press conference that his workers were threatened with arrest if they didn’t move to the free-speech area.
Though Steele said in his remarks that firefighters had been stripped of their First Amendment rights, it appears that he was actually referring to Texas Petition Strategies’ employees.
Hatch said he had 20 or more workers in San Antonio gathering signatures, though a few retired firefighters helped. Texas Petition Strategies, however, collected “98.97 percent” of the signatures, he said.
Hatch’s firm has been paid at least $504,000 for its work in San Antonio on behalf of the firefighters union. The Express-News reported this week that the union’s PAC had failed to disclose the political expenditures on required monthly campaign-finance reports. On Wednesday, the union’s PAC filed three amended reports but failed to accurately record the expenditures.
The filings stated that Texas Petition Strategies contributed the work as three in-kind contributions, but Steele and Hatch have since confirmed that the union did, in fact, pay for the work.
Left unanswered is where the money came from: the PAC’s reports didn’t show enough cash on hand — or contributions — to account for the $504,000.
As the union’s lawsuit proceeds, facts surrounding exactly how the union paid for its campaign could come to light during trial discovery.
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