September 28, 2020:- Another small victory for freedom of expression in Massachusetts, again from a Federal judge rather than the State courts. The key point? Housing providers should not have to promote organizations that seek to strip away their rights.
In the case of Baptiste v. Kenneally, the U.S. District Court did not grant the plaintiffs an injunction against the Commonwealth’s eviction moratorium, but did find that the regulations issued under it impermissibly burden free speech.
In April, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) which prohibits landlords from sending notices to quit, but allows them to send missed-payment notices stating how much the tenants owe.
Then the executive branch issued emergency regulations (with no notice-and-comment period) that tell housing providers what to say in these missed-payment notices, including a link to certain “resources.” The “resources” include Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which in turn links to the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the taxpayer-funded nonprofit corporation* that campaigns for measures that are (I will put this mildly) not entirely consistent with the constitutionally-guaranteed right to possess and enjoy private property, e.g.
“We will fight for legislation to protect and expand rights for all working-class renters and homeowners, including RENT CONTROL, RIGHT TO COUNSEL, and an EVICTION SEALING ACT. We’ll actively support efforts to make corporate developers pay for these initiatives through a TRANSFER FEE on the sale of luxury development” (all caps in original).
That quote is from the page on the corporation’s website titled Our Work. All those measures are diametrically opposed to the interests of housing providers, and members of the statewide organization MassLandlords have consistently voiced their opposition to them.
On September 25, Judge Mark L. Wolf held that the State government regulations infringe the speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
[T]he court finds that plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that the second paragraph of 400 C.M.R. §5.03(2) unconstitutionally compels speech by requiring plaintiffs to include in any notice of rent arrearage addresses of non-governmental websites that, in turn, refer tenants to tenant advocacy groups, including City Life/Vida Urbana, with interests adverse to plaintiffs’.
The judge went on:
“[I]t is a fact that organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana provide legal services to tenants who want to resist being evicted, they also engage in other activities including, among other things, advocating for legislation that restricts landlords’ rights to evict, and litigating against them.”
The judge explained that State government should not compel landlords to endorse and promote these activities, and that compelled speech of this sort would not survive intermediate scrutiny let alone strict scrutiny.
This part of the decision represents a welcome victory for free speech in the Federal District Court. What a shame the State-level courts in Massachusetts so rarely evince a similar regard for that right.
*The corporation’s legal name is Urban Revival, Inc. and according to its Form 990 (2017) its mission/significant activities are “racial/ethnic harmony through affordable housing and economic development,” which is more succinct than (and different in tone from) the mission statement on its website:
“City Life/Vida Urbana is a grassroots community organization committed to fighting for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power. We promote individual empowerment, develop community leaders and build collective power to effect systemic change and transform society.”
P.S. A note about my choice of image, which illustrates the idea of the mailed fist in the velvet glove. When I write about compelled speech, I like to offer a reminder about who it is, exactly, that is doing the compelling. If ever you disobey a law, you risk an encounter with agents of the only organization in society that (as Max Weber pointed out) claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, namely the government. If you refuse to do what the government tells you to do, or you refuse to speak the words that it demands that you utter, eventually you will come into contact with the government’s agents, people who wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have the power to alter your condition from free to un-free and from alive to dead.