Credit: Mike Linksvayer

October 28, 2020; Bakersfield Californian

The ACLU of Southern California says the Kern County Board of Supervisors last week violated the First Amendment rights of a group that supports a campaign to defund the police when it denied them a contract to perform COVID-19 prevention outreach.

ACLU attorney Jordan Wells urges the supervisors to reconvene to reconsider.

“When your speech can lead to government retaliation, you’re likely to refrain from speaking,” Wells says. “We want to have robust public discussion of policy issues that matter in our community. If the price of that discussion is retaliation from government, that would destroy that right to free speech.”

Wells referenced the case Board of County Commissioners, Wabaunsee Cty., Kan. v. Umbehr, in which the high court found in favor of a trash hauler who claimed First Amendment right violations when his contract was terminated by the local Board of Commissioners for the hauler’s criticisms of the board.

“The First Amendment exists specifically to protect minority voices from being stamped out by majority views,” Wells said.

Meanwhile, the decision to withhold the contract from Building Healthy Communities Kern has created enormous delays. The group had already done much of the necessary work to prepare for the $1.2 million campaign, designing materials and hiring and training staff. The delay could affect reopening dates for the area.

Revisiting of the issue may very well produce a different outcome, since David Couch, the chair of the board, was not present at the session where the grant was withdrawn. Couch had been actively working with Building Healthy Communities Kern, writing in late August, “We’ve identified some things that might truly help improve awareness and are taking next steps to make this happen.”—Ruth McCambridge