FREE SPEECH POLICE? DEFENSE OF WOMEN’S SHELTER ALLEGEDLY VIOLATES MUNICIPAL CODE
The director of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has filed a complaint against the law firm of Brena, Bell, and Clarkson, saying that statements made to a newspaper reporter by a partner in the firm in a case involving Downtown Hope Center, a women’s shelter, constitute a violation of the equal rights of transgendered people.
The law firm is accused of violating the Anchorage nondiscrimination ordinance as it represented a faith-based shelter for homeless women. The shelter has also been accused of the same offense.
The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission filed a formal complaint against Brena, Bell & Clarkson, charging the law firm with committing “unlawful discriminatory acts or practices” in violation of a city ordinance regarding gender identity.
The complaint, 18-167, seeks to censure the legal team representing the women’s shelter, which denied overnight accommodations to a transgendered individual this past winter. The shelter is a wide-open space with mats on the floor, and only admits women; it says many of its women are traumatized and should not be forced to sleep with men on the floor.
But it’s the media coverage of the complaint that got the law firm in trouble with the commission.
“Against centuries of jurisprudence, Complaint 18-167 seeks to censure Brena, Bell, and Clarkson P.C. … for statements it made while representing Downtown Hope Center,” wrote First Liberty Institute, the legal firm now representing Brena, Bell, and Clarkson.
The commission’s actions “improperly and insidiously” are trying to drive a wedge between the women’s shelter and its legal team, the lawyers said.
“The Commission should immediately withdraw the 167 Complaint because it violates the absolute immunity widely afforded to attorney statements pertaining to litigation. As the United States Supreme Court notes, this absolute immunity is “for the public interest, and best calculated to subserve the purposes of justice, to allow counsel full freedom of speech, in conducting the causes and advocating and sustaining the rights, of their constituents; and this freedom of discussion ought not to be impaired by numerous and refined distinctions,” First Liberty Institute wrote.
A fact-finding conference over the matter has been scheduled by the commission for Monday, but First Liberty is asking the commission to cancel its hearing because it lacks jurisdiction.
The case started with Timothy Coyle, who is also known as Samantha Coyle, but who is a biological male, possibly going through a sex-change procedure, though that is unclear.
Coyle tried to gain entry into the Downtown Hope Center’s women’s shelter. The shelter refused him because he was inebriated, but gave Coyle cab fare to go to the emergency room to tend to injuries sustained in a fight he/she had been in at the Brother Francis Shelter.
Coyle later found shelter, and the AWAIC shelter for abused women assisted him in filing an Equal Rights Commission complaint against the Hope Center.
Coyle’s complaint said he/she was discriminated against based on “sex” and “gender identity,” in violation of Anchorage Municipal Code Section 5.20.050.
“I am female and transgender and thus I belong to a protected class,” Coyle wrote on the complaint.
Kevin Clarkson, with Brena, Bell and Clarkson, filed an answer to the complaint in March and said that Coyle was not denied services because of his sex or gender identity, but because he was drunk, and he had arrived at a time that Hope was not accepting new admissions into its shelter.
The Equal Rights Commission is now claiming that Clarkson was more than just an attorney to the Hope Center, but was acting as an “agent” of the center, something Clarkson and his law firm deny.
The commission, however, says that media, including unnamed online sources and the Anchorage Daily News, reported on the matter, and statements made by Clarkson to Devin Kelly, a reporter for the ADN, were violations of the Equal Rights Commission process.
Kelly interviewed Clarkson and the statements he made to the reporter are what drew the commission to deciding that Clarkson should be investigated for those statements.
Must Read Alaska covered the original incident but only had a momentary conversation with Clarkson, in which he said he was not able to discuss the matter. He later did discuss it with an ADN reporter.
“Neither BBC [the law firm] nor DHC [the shelter] solicited media coverage nor had any role in the publication or content of any news articles regarding the ‘041 Complaint and related facts. Moreover, the Commission admits it does not know whether Kevin Clarkson was speaking at the behest of or on behalf of the Downtown Hope Center when he made these communications. The ‘167 Complaint does not dispute or contain any allegations contradicting that DHC is a nonprofit homeless shelter, that Mr. Clarkson was DHC’s legal counsel. Although the ‘167 Complaint alleges multiple ‘media sources,’ none are named in the ‘167 Complaint. Oniy the Anchorage Daily News is identified by implication through the attachment of a Daily News article to the ‘167 Complaint,” according to the First Liberty Institute’s motion to dismiss.
The law firm is asserting its First Amendment right to speak to a news reporter, and saying any ordinances prohibiting free speech are unconstitutional. Further, the law firm is immune because Alaska recognizes, “absolute immunity for lawyers involved in litigation.”
Monday’s fact-finding hearing is closed to the public, but First Institute has advised the commission it will be recording the event via a court reporter, and has asked the commission to either provide one or advise the Institute that it has no intention of providing one, in which case the firm will bring its own.
The commission itself has made no public notification of its complaint against Brena, Bell, and Clarkson.