For Immediate Release
June 19, 2002
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6282
Media Alert: Court Strikes Giuliani-Era Rule Governing City Job Centers
Ruling Says City Policy Violates First Amendment, But Leaves Door Open to Restrictions on Advocates for the Poor
Today’s ruling in Sanchez v. Turner struck part of the New York City policy restricting advocates’ access to Human Resources Administration “Job Centers,” where welfare benefits are administered. In this case, Make the Road by Walking, a community organization based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, sought access to Job Center waiting rooms to provide information to public benefit claimants, so they may better understand the benefits that they are entitled to under the law. Judge Allen G. Schwartz of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said in his ruling, “A policy that gives a government official the discretion to deny permission to speak based on presumably private criteria is invalid on its face.”
“Once again, a federal court has had to step in to remind the City of New York that it cannot give its officials unbridled discretion over whether and when private citizens can engage in constitutionally protected speech,” says Laura Abel, Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “The court’s ruling assures advocates for the poor and everyone else that officials cannot simply bar their speech based on disagreement with their message.”
Unfortunately, the ruling allows the City to continue to restrict access to Job Centers by refashioning its rule. According to the court’s decision, even if the City can achieve its goals without denying access to advocates, it remains free to continue the denial of access without even exploring other ways to achieve those goals.
Leslie Monroy, a member of plaintiff organization Make the Road by Walking, stated, “The bottom line is that the City is giving misinformation to welfare recipients, and notwithstanding the fact that we are extremely effective at helping recipients protect their rights and get benefits for their families, and that welfare offices are the best place for us to get information to welfare recipients, Judge Schwartz says it’s okay for the City to exclude us. We think his decision is wrong on the law and wrong on the merits.”
This case began on March 6, 2000, when the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the New York Legal Assistance Group, and the Welfare Law Center filed a complaint asking a federal court to declare unconstitutional New York City’s rules barring welfare advocates from welfare offices. Plaintiffs in the case are the membership-based community organization Make the Road by Walking and two welfare recipients who went through terrible hardships as a result of being denied benefits while the City gave them partial and/or inaccurate information regarding their cases. Plaintiffs sought an injunction requiring the City to allow advocates to enter welfare offices in order to provide information enabling interested individuals to learn about their rights. Although the City allows advocates into welfare offices when they are representing individuals, it does not allow them in when they want to assist other people sitting in the waiting rooms.
Plaintiffs and attorneys are available for comment or interview. Get more information, including briefs filed and the court’s ruling, by calling Amanda Cooper at 212.998.6736 or visiting http://www.brennancenter.org.