Editorial: Free-speech defiance reflects government at its worst

Election

The recent settlement over a blatant restriction against employees’ free-speech rights is embarrassing for the county, and it remains befuddling how such a policy could be enacted and carried out for so long.

San Benito County settled with Service Employees International Union Local 521 for $10,000 and the removal of rules put in place about a decade ago banning workers from posting political signs and other political materials on their personal properties.

Equally appalling as the policy itself was the county’s brazen response, and that the union had to take the local government to court for a reversal.

A spokesperson for SEIU told the Free Lance that the union became concerned last spring when the policy was circulated to employees as a reminder about the types of political activities in which they can and can’t engage. That means top-level county officials were not only aware of this outrageously offensive policy, but that they also made a point to ensure it was emphasized to union members, right before election season when those workers – and every American – have the fundamental right to express their political leanings on any personal property of their choosing.

It was only when the union filed a lawsuit – rightfully alleging a violation of First Amendment rights – that county officials treated the matter with any level of seriousness. SEIU representatives said they first tried to contact county administrators in June to discuss a revision of the policy and then broached the issue informally in meetings with individual supervisors. The representatives said without a response from officials either by phone or email, they moved forward with a lawsuit Sept. 19. The county settled immediately – about three months after the SEIU challenged the policy – and with egg on its collective face.

How is it possible that so many top-level officials, including supervisors, treated the most fundamental American right with such callous disregard and arrogance? How is it possible that such discretion was taken with free speech?

The only explanation is arrogance in leadership. Local government leaders have long tested and crossed the line when it comes to following the letter of the law, perhaps because of our political and geographic isolation. But who would have thought they would try to defy the cornerstone of democracy?

That type of attitude must change.

Former County Administrative Officer Rich Inman is no longer with the county – he announced his resignation weeks ago – but certainly he was not the only official who knew about the policy.

In this case for the county, there should be a transparent examination into the history behind this policy – who was involved, when and why – so that we can ensure they are held accountable for taking part in this travesty.

This is just another example of government counting on the average person not having the resources to challenge power – even when the appellants are clearly right. Government routinely ignores correcting its own mistakes until someone spends his or her own personal cash.

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