In response to an order banning a community housing activist from meetings of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), the ACLU of DC sent a letter to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine today, denouncing that order as unconstitutional and demanding that it be rescinded immediately. Schyla Pondexter-Moore, an activist with Empower DC and an outspoken critic of DCHA redevelopment policy, was ejected from DCHA’s September 14, 2016 meeting after she reacted vociferously to a vote to proceed with the redevelopment of Barry Farm. On October 7, two Housing Authority police officers served her with an order barring her from DCHA meetings for 60 days, without prior notice or opportunity for a hearing.
“The District’s action is unconstitutional,” said Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of the District of Columbia. “Absent a significant and demonstrable danger, a blanket ban from future meetings is incompatible with the First Amendment’s command that public debate be robust and uninhibited. DCHA is abusing the barring-notice procedure by deploying it to shut down a critic’s participation in hearings that D.C. law requires be open to the public.”
Pondexter-Moore, herself a resident of public housing, has spent years advocating for her fellow public-housing residents before the DCHA. She was never removed or banned from a meeting before September 14.
“Showing up and speaking at DCHA meetings is an important part of standing up for our communities,” Pondexter-Moore said. “Many of the DCHA Commissioners don’t live in public housing and therefore aren’t personally affected by the decisions DCHA makes. Seeing our faces and hearing our voices reminds them that their decisions to displace low-income residents have a human cost, and it helps all residents realize that we can play an active role in policymaking.”
Because the next DCHA meeting is scheduled for November 9 at Barry Farm, the ACLU’s letter demands that the ban be lifted by Friday or the ACLU will go to court to seek immediate relief from the ban.
“The Supreme Court established forty years ago that the loss of First Amendment freedoms for even the smallest period of time constitutes irreparable harm,” Michelman said. “Courts around the country have consistently struck down orders banning individuals from future government meetings open to the public.”
In addition to Pondexter-Moore’s First Amendment rights, the ACLU letter asserts that the summary ban violated Pondexter-Moore’s due process rights by denying her notice or an opportunity to be heard before the ban was imposed. The letter pointed out that Pondexter-Moore does not attend meetings for the purpose of causing a disturbance, but rather for the purpose of participating in the process.
The ACLU’s letter was addressed to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and to Chief of DCHA Police Joel Maupin. A copy is available here.
Contact: Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, firstname.lastname@example.org, (202) 457-0800 ext. 1001
Scott Michelman, email@example.com, (202) 457-0800 ext. 1005