ACLU Raises First Amendment Concerns about Baltimore County Animal Shelter

October 16, 2014

 

 

 

Contact: Meredith Curtis, 410-889-8555, media@aclu-md.org  

 

BALTIMORE, MD - Concerned that a government-run animal shelter is preventing volunteers and members of the public from documenting and speaking out about conditions and practices, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is taking action to protect their First Amendment rights. The ACLU is contacting Baltimore County Animal Services (BCAS) about policies and practices that appear to be aimed at undermining the shelter's public accountability.

 

"Our rights under the First Amendment are the foundation of Americans' ability to hold government agencies accountable," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "That is why it raises red flags for the Baltimore County Animal Shelter to selectively impose restrictions upon photography and speech freedoms at the facility, seemingly in an effort to stifle criticism."

 

The ACLU is concerned that BCAS is violating the rights of both current and former BCAS volunteers, as well as the general public. Numerous advocates, including with Reform Baltimore County Animal Services (Reform BCAS), have publicly questioned conditions, adequacy of BCAS efforts to find homes for abandoned animals, and high euthanasia rates - claims partly disputed by BCAS. The volunteers and advocates say they are being chilled in their free speech rights through retaliation, or threats of retaliation, when they raise concerns about shelter practices. In addition, the photography ban keeps volunteers, advocates, and the general public from being able to help the shelter find homes for the animals and document conditions at the facility.

 

Numerous troubling stories have been shared with the ACLU, including:

 

  • BCAS's removal of volunteer Sarah Hardy from her position after she invoked her right, as a member of the public, to photograph animals in public areas at BCAS. This action was instituted even though Hardy's sole purpose in taking pictures at BCAS was the laudable one of spreading information as widely as possible about animals available for adoption;

 

  • A June 2014 policy statement posted online - on the Facebook page of Reform BCAS -- by Don Mohler, Chief of Staff to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, stating that "Citizens who visit the shelter may not take photos of the animals."

 

  • Two ACLU volunteers, outfitted with large cameras and posing as a couple looking to adopt a pet, went to the shelter in July to test the no photography policy. They were confronted by a BCAS official who said she investigates whenever members of the public try to take pictures, because many people try to take "inappropriate" pictures, aimed at making the shelter look bad. Though the ACLU testers were permitted to photograph animals for their stated purpose of showing available pets to their young niece, the official stated that this would not have been allowed for a different, "inappropriate" purpose, such as "if you were from Channel 2."

 

  • Claims to the ACLU and Reform BCAS from a number of volunteers, who wish not to be named, that they are afraid to speak out about problems they see at BCAS, for fear that their positions will be terminated - as they have seen happen to others -- leaving animals they care for at BCAS to suffer due to their absence;

 

"My goal in taking pictures was to help ensure the animals were well cared for and help them find new homes," said ACLU client Sarah Hardy, former BCAS volunteer, and animal welfare advocate with Reform BCAS, who was fired for taking photographs. "I miss being at the shelter and working with the animals."

 

 

The animal welfare advocates are represented by Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.