Justice Department Threatens to Undermine Shelter Reform Efforts

The President is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a case with enormous implications for shelter reform advocates. At his direction, the Justice Department wants it to overturn “a federal appeals court ruling that found the president’s practice of blocking critics [on social media] violates the First Amendment.”

The President is not the only public official to violate Federal law by censoring speech. Virginia Delegate Bobby Orrock, a Republican, has done it; as have Democratic New York officials, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Likewise, Long Beach, CA, Mayor Robert Garcia, who recently spoke at the Democratic National Convention, illegally violated the civil rights of citizens by hiding comments on his Facebook page critical of his handling of the city pound, which maintained a high rate of killing and paltry number of adoptions.

What did the appeals court ruling hold?

In Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, 928 F.3d 226 (2d Cir. 2019), the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that President Donald Trump cannot delete comments or ban people on Twitter for criticizing him or his policies. More broadly, the ruling reaffirms the proposition that a public official cannot selectively censor comments or block individuals on their official social media pages based on the viewpoints they express.

According to the Court, “the First Amendment does not permit a public official who uses a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

What are the implications for animal shelter reform?

Citizens not only have a First Amendment right to speak out against government policies with which they disagree, they have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145 (1983). Indeed, such speech lies “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.” First Nat’l Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776 (1978).

When animal lives are at stake — as they are when animals enter a shelter that has not fully embraced a culture of lifesaving — removing comments or banning people critical of policies that favor killing by government shelters is even more egregious given the life and death consequences. Animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Deleting critical comments and/or banning the commenter effectively silences them.

My organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, was the first to bring a free speech case against pound officials, forcing the Los Angeles County pound to reinstate a rescuer who was banned for speaking out over the starvation of a dog at the hands of cruel and indifferent pound staff, We also assisted Long Beach shelter reform advocates, helping to bring the Mayor’s actions to public attention and forcing him to back down and unhide the comments.

For these reasons, it is important that the Court decide against the President, either by declining to hear the case or affirming the Second Circuit decision. It will decide this fall whether to take it up.

P.S. Protecting animals from harm should not be a partisan issue. While it is not uncommon for ideological supporters of the President to raise no objection to my criticism of California Governor Gavin Newsom for harming animals or my criticism of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for doing so, they will often cry foul when it is a criticism of someone they support politically, like Trump (or one of his appointees). Case in point: my recent condemnation of the Administration’s dismantling of post office operations and the agencies entrusted with responding to public health emergencies, resulting in the callous deaths of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of animals.

The same is true in the other direction. I was criticized by ideological Buttigieg supporters when I wrote an article exposing his allowing dogs and cats to be needlessly and callously killed at the South Bend pound under his lackluster leadership and then covering it up by reducing transparency after I started asking questions of his Administration.

But it is what is right that matters, not who is right. In the defense of our rights, and the lives of animals, we can and should look beyond partisan divides.


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