Free speech at county animal shelter put to sleep
April 4, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
If you’re a volunteer at the San Luis Obispo County animal shelter, you can bark, but you might get bitten.
Volunteers at the Animal Services Division (ASD) facility have been muzzled, prohibited from speaking to the media or even making Internet postings, if county officials don’t happen to like their tone. According to the shelter’s lengthy new volunteer policy — which found its way into a reporter’s hands mere hours after its unveiling Thursday night — volunteers will be fired for disregarding the rules.
Those rules, contained in ASD’s “Volunteer Policy and Procedure Manual,” prohibit “all public statements, whether verbal or written, inside the shelter or outside, which criticize, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the Division, its employees, volunteers, or policies.”
Additionally, the manual makes it a firing offense for volunteers to “address any public gathering, appear on radio or television programs, write articles or manuscripts for publication, make Internet postings, or any other public or publicly accessible representations as a representative of the division unless it is in compliance with applicable policies and authorized by the Animal Services Manager.”
Volunteers must sign an agreement promising to abide by the rules.
Final arbiter of what is forbidden language: Sheriff Patrick Hedges, under whose county department the ASD resides.
The shelter’s manager, Dr. Eric Anderson, told UncoveredSLO.com that the volunteers’ 16-page manual “is the first step in a longer process of organizing and structuring the volunteer program.”
He acknowledged that volunteers had “some problems” with the new rules, “but it’s not that they can’t talk publicly. They know that we are not trying to be suppressive, just trying to address issues more productively,” said Anderson. He said of the volunteer’s “problems” with the new rules: “There wasn’t any substantial issue to come from that.”
But when asked if any volunteers have raised First Amendment issues, Anderson replied, “Why, yes, some did.” Asked if he or other county officials had considered the potential unconstitutionality of such a communication prohibition, Anderson said, “I’m not sure.” He said he didn’t know if the manual’s language had been cleared by the County Counsel’s office.
Warren Jensen, assistant county counsel, said late Friday afternoon that he wasn’t sure his office had seen a copy of the manual, and said he needed time to review it “before giving a definitive answer.”
While “there may be a case for regulating what volunteers can do,” said Jensen, “this is a complicated issue and there may be some parts (of the manual) that have gone too far.”
The policy manual was developed by the county’s Human Resources Department with input from his own staff and volunteers, the shelter’s chief said. “And the sheriff’s people were kept in the loop all the way. It was a real collaborative effort.”
Ruth Bianchi was a volunteer veteran of four years when she was summoned in February to the sheriff’s office. There she was read a statement which, in essence, terminated her service. Her crime? Talking to county supervisors and others about cleanliness and other health issues at the animal shelter.
“We followed the chain of command,” said Bianchi this week. “But nothing happened.” She said many volunteer suggestions are viewed as criticisms by shelter staff, but “those suggestions have often turned into good policy changes. All the things we went public about have been changed.”
Bianchi said she was saddened by what she called “the situation” at the shelter:
“The animals are the real issue… finding some comfort for them in a frightening, scary place, is why volunteers keep coming.”