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Judge: Texas Labor Protest Is Protected Free Speech

In May 2014, labor rights advocates gathered on a public sidewalk in McAllen, Texas to support area residents who said they were not paid by their employers. Wage theft, as it’s called, has long been a concern among workers and grassroots advocates.

Labor advocates are seen on May 15, 2014 with tape over their mouths in McAllen, Texas. They were supporting workers who said they were not paid and opposing a city ordinance, which banned yelling or shouting even while on public property. Photo courtesy of Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center
Labor advocates are seen on May 15, 2014 with tape over their mouths in McAllen, Texas. They were supporting workers who said they were not paid and opposing a city ordinance, which banned yelling or shouting even while on public property. Photo courtesy of Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center

To their surprise, McAllen police officers arrived at the protest and said their use of bullhorns was prohibited in this Rio Grande Valley city. After protesters continued chanting, the officers added that shouting violated a city ordinance, according to court papers. In fact, the officers threatened to fine Hector Guzman Lopez, a protester, and others for their actions.

The same thing occurred a second time on public property in the city later that month.

It turns out the McAllen city ordinance violated free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it was overly broad.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez issued that ruling on Oct. 2 for the federal court that covers the southern portion of Texas. Guzman Lopez, who sued the city of McAllen with help from the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the ruling marks a victory for low-wage workers and everyone in the city.

“Freedom of speech is essential for low-wage working families who do not have the resources to hire attorneys to file suit for their wages or other labor issues,” the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, which organized the two protests, said in a statement.

“The right to express your concerns is also a fundamental avenue to push forth a more democratic society and to raise concerns on issues that might otherwise never be cared for.”

In this case, advocates’ concerns centered around the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law, which, among many things, requires that employees be paid for the time they work. Guzman Lopez  is the coordinator for the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, which represents and advocates for workers in the Rio Grande Valley.

Efren C. Olivares, left, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project and Hector Guzman Lopez of the Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center, stand in front of the McAllen City Hall on Sept. 1, 2014 when they filed a federal lawsuit against the municipality over free speech and protests on public property. Photo courtesy of Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center
Efren C. Olivares, left, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project and Hector Guzman Lopez of the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, stand in front of the McAllen City Hall on Sept. 1, 2014 when they filed a federal lawsuit against the municipality over free speech and protests on public property. Photo courtesy of Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center

The city ordinance that prohibits the use of bullhorns and bans yelling in the city started in 2003, according to court papers. It was in effect throughout the city at all times of the day. The issue, Guzman Lopez said, was that McAllen police officers enforced the ordinance on a selective basis.

“We don’t know why we were targeted,” he said.

During a World Cup soccer viewing match in June 2014 at the McAllen Convention Center, for example, Guzman Lopez said fans were “screaming, yelling, hollering and shouting” as they rooted for the U.S. team.

“Mr. Guzman Lopez observed that no police officer enforced the noise ordinance at the World Cup viewing event on that day,” according to court papers.

He also cited other public demonstrations in McAllen in July and August 2014 – some of which included the use of bullhorns – in which people chanted and yelled without any response or legal warnings from police officers.

On Sept. 28, days before Alvarez issued her ruling, the McAllen City Board of Commissioners changed the ordinance.

The new language clarifies the definition of “disturbance” and limits “unreasonably loud volume of noise” at all times at a residence or “noise that is incompatible with the normal activity…during the normal business hours of a business,” according to a copy of the revised ordinance distributed by labor advocates.

Under the revised ordinance, it is now legal to scream, shout, holler and yell, as well as use a loudspeaker, such as a bullhorn, on public property in McAllen.

Advocates with the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center also pointed out that it was fitting that they filed the federal lawsuit on Sept. 1, 2014. That was Labor Day.

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Brad Wong is news editor for Equal Voice News.

2015 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


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