Silencing Volunteers Silences Animals
Mr. Pickles, a young, friendly, neutered pet cat, was killed by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control (LACDACC) when staff claimed he was “feral” and “dangerous.”
They did the same to a three-month-old shy puppy named Bowie.
But volunteers risk being fired if they share their stories on social media, ask their elected officials to reform the shelter, or criticize staff who kill animals.
LACDACC has just released a new volunteer policy that prohibits volunteers from speaking honestly on their own personal social media pages — such as saying, “The dog was killed” rather than using euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “euthanized,” which sugarcoat the violence and make the task of killing easier.
This new policy is illegal.
Volunteers not only have the First Amendment right to speak out against inhumane conduct by a government shelter, they also have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government corrects the identified wrongs.
Unfortunately, LACDACC is not alone. Some large national “animal welfare” groups promote the illegal policy. Best Friends Animal Society, for example, encourages pounds to implement policies where “Any negative posts on social media will not be tolerated…” This shields people in “shelters” who kill animals from accountability rather than protecting the animals they are killing.
Not surprisingly, other communities, like Memphis, TN, have implemented similar policies. And still others, such as Austin, TX, tried to do so until they were forced to rescind it by the threat of litigation.
Volunteers are the eyes, ears, and heart of the community. Animals in shelters have no voice and need others to speak for them. Silencing volunteers silences the animals. And silence has life-and-death consequences.
Our letter to Los Angeles County officials:
Madam Chair and Members of the Board of Supervisors:
On June 21, 2023, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control (LACDACC) released a new volunteer policy that threatens to fire volunteers if they criticize the pound on their personal social media pages, fail to “be positive in tone, image, content, and verbiage,” or speak honestly about what occurs there — such as saying, “the dog was killed” rather than using euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “euthanized” which sugarcoat the violence and make the task of killing easier.
42 U.S.C. § 1983 prohibits government officials from subjecting “any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws...” It is a violation of Section 1983 for a municipal government agency to take action designed to prevent or intimidate people from exercising their First Amendment rights or punish them for doing so, and there can be no dispute that complaining about conditions at animal shelters is a constitutionally protected right. Volunteers not only have the First Amendment right to speak out against inhumane conduct by a government shelter, they have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the identified wrongs.
As the Supreme Court has unequivocally stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests — especially, his interest in freedom of speech.” Moreover, “the First Amendment does not permit a public official… to exclude persons from otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.” More recently, federal courts have held that “Official censorship based on a state actor’s subjective judgment that the content of protected speech is offensive or inappropriate is viewpoint discrimination.”
Madam Chair and Members of the Board of Supervisors, volunteers are the eyes, ears, and heart of the community. Animals in shelters have no voice and need others to speak for them. Silencing volunteers silences the animals. And silence has life-and-death consequences. Unfortunately, LACDACC officials have decided that they will terminate volunteers — and potentially kill the animals they help save — if those volunteers do not sign away their constitutional rights. That is not only pernicious, it is illegal.
Because LACDACC’s volunteer social media policy is so clearly unconstitutional and contrary to our country’s fundamental principles of liberty, we request that LACDACC rescind it.
Very truly yours,
Nathan J. Winograd
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