HUD to back off peaceful protesters

September 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Housing and Urban Development said yesterday that it no longer would act against people who challenged its decisions with letter writing, pamphleteering or other forms of peaceful protest.

The decision came in response to complaints from people who protested the department's decisions in Berkeley, Calif., and Manhattan, N.Y., and then faced HUD investigations in which they were told to turn over diaries, phone messages and other personal papers.

In Berkeley, the complaints were over a HUD proposal for housing for the poor. The Manhattan case involved a proposed home for the mentally ill.

At the time, the department said it acted under the Fair Housing Act to protect the interests of those who would have lived in the projects.

But yesterday, the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, Roberta Achtenberg, said HUD would only investigate cases in which the protesters resorted to physical harm or coercion.

The department said it would not intervene when protesters distributed written material to the public or to news organizations, held community meetings, demonstrated peacefully or communicated with government officials, Ms. Achtenberg said.

"Citizens have a right to participate in the fundamental affairs of their community," she said.

But she added: "When confronted with a complaint that someone relentlessly harassed and intimidated a neighbor, HUD will stand up for the proposition that there is no place for such behavior in America."

Ms. Achtenberg said that the department received 10,000 complaints under the Fair Housing Act each year, but that only 34 of those filed in 1993 showed a violation of free-speech rights by the protesters.

Under the new guidelines, 11 of the 34 would be dismissed, she said, because the complaints were based on peaceful, noncoercive protests.

In the Manhattan case, a non-profit agency that wanted to buy a building and make it a home for a group of mentally ill people accused three residents of the Gramercy Park neighborhood of coercing a bank into pulling the building off the market.

The housing department responded by seeking access to the residents' diaries, telephone messages and petitions.

The investigation found that allegations that the residents had influenced the bank were baseless. But the three residents contended that they had a right to demonstrate peacefully against newcomers in their neighborhood.

The Berkeley case involved a protest by several residents of a neighborhood in that city against the proposed construction of a housing project for low-income people.

At one point, HUD had threatened to fine the protesters $50,000, but last week it relented, citing their First Amendment right to free speech.

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