Image: A screen shot of two pages from the new “handbook” which Montgomery County Animal Shelter Director Aaron Johnson has issued. It’s remarkable how many different Texas and federal civil rights laws and provisions of the Constitutions that new directive violates.
Conroe, December 5 – In his continuing war with volunteers who dare question the policies of the government-run Montgomery County Animal Shelter (MCAS), Director Aaron Johnson has issued a new “handbook” which contains direct violations of Texas and federal Constitutional provisions, civil rights laws, and the Texas Government Code’s open government provisions. The physical threats of Johnson’s “hatchet man” Troy Ita, the husband of the Shelter’s Volunteer Coordinator who has threatened several people with physical violence for their criticism of the Shelter, apparently aren’t sufficient for the level of secrecy Johnson and his management team seek.
The new “handbook,” which first appeared on Friday, November 30, 2018, contains the following directives to volunteers who work at the Shelter without compensation:
- “DO NOT post photos or videos of animals or community members receiving services from MCAS without permission of MCAS administration.”
- “DO NOT…post negative…information…about MCAS staff or other volunteers.”
- “DO post links and positive comments about experiences while volunteering with MCAS.”
- “DO post positive comments about MCAS…”
- “DO take responsibility for ensuring that any references to MCAS policies and procedures are factual, complete, and accurate.”
The foregoing directives are very similar to those of the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 in which the government purged any opposition speech and in which the government established a corps of young people who “disciplined” (often to death) anyone who dared to disagree with government policies.
In Texas and the United States, the government may not engage in prior restraints of free speech, which the Texas Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in Nebraska Press Association versus Stewart in 1976 that “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment Rights…Any prior restraint on expression comes to this Court with a ‘heavy presumption’ against its constitutional validity.” A prior restraint means a restraint by government upon publication or expression before the publication or expression occurs.
Outside of the national security area, courts have consistently held prior restraints on free speech are unconstitutional. For example, a trial judge may not issue a restraining order that someone not engage in certain forms of speech without offending the Texas and United States Constitutions.
In this instance, Johnson and the Animal Shelter seek to restrain volunteers from making negative statements about MCAS. Worse yet, they have imposed an affirmative duty on other MCAS volunteers to police such activities in order to prevent them.
After Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal chased off popular Montgomery County Animal Shelter (MCAS) Director Charles Jackson and replaced him with his own choice, Aaron Johnson, it’s no surprise that MCAS has moved in the direction of secrecy.
Since the early spring 2017, MCAS has boasted that its live release rate for the animals which come into its walls has exceeded 90%, which meets the definition of a “no kill” animal shelter under national no-kill standards. Through the end of 2017, MCAS supposedly had a live release rate of 92%, one of the highest such rates among any animal shelter in the Gulf Coast region.
The events of August 20, 2018, brought those statistics sharply into question. After Montgomery County Animal Control brought in seventy-seven (77) animals into the shelter from the home of a sick elderly lady who was unable to care for them, Johnson ordered the killing of all of them due to the already high population inside of MCAS. Since Johnson and the Animal Control officers had gotten the elderly lady to sign a “request to euthanize” form for all of her animals, when MCAS killed sixty-eight (68) of them, the Shelter counted none of those animals towards the kill statistics.
At that time, it came to light that MCAS’s claimed 92% “live release rate” was likely quite a bit lower in reality, because Johnson and his team didn’t count any animals they euthanized after owners turned the animals into the Shelter with a “request to euthanize.”
Even though Johnson has served as MCAS’s Director for a year-and-a-half, the Shelter still has no formal written euthanasia policy which defines the standards under which the County government kills animals. In recent months, with the high population of animals at MCAS, Johnson and Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, who briefly ran MCAS while Johnson and his assistant director were on suspension during a then-pending criminal investigation, the Animal Shelter has killed many animals “for space” as opposed to medical or behavioral reasons.
The high population at the Shelter reflects Johnson’s failure to market the adoption of its animals into permanent homes more than any other problem. Johnson, however, seeks to hide any negative information about MCAS or its policies, so the community will have a rosier picture of his failed efforts.
Johnson has “terminated” volunteers who have posted negative comments about MCAS on social media. MCAS’s Foster Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator have removed negative items from social media posts, which such actions are a direct violation of the federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. section 1983.
Nathan Winograd, a nationally-renowned animal shelter expert and attorney, who has provided consulting services to the Montgomery County government in the past, wrote a brief essay, which he made available on social media on August 12, 2016, about this precise concern. Winograd’s essay follows.
42 U.S. Code § 1983 is a law that every animal shelter volunteer, every rescuer, every No Kill advocate should keep in their pocket. It is a law that protects you from retribution by municipal shelter managers for demanding that they treat the animals humanely and stop killing them needlessly.
It gives you the right to criticize the shelter on Facebook without being banned as a volunteer.
It gives you the right to complain to the City Council without losing your status as a rescuer.
It gives you a right to take photographs of filthy conditions and let the world know without being kicked out.
And it forbids shelters from forcing you to sign, as a condition of volunteering, a “non disclosure” agreement that prevents you from posting criticism of the shelter that would put them in a “negative light.”
You don’t surrender your constitutional rights at the shelter door.
Passed in 1871 as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act to protect African Americans in the South from the lawlessness that ensued after the conclusion of the Civil War, it reads in pertinent part,
“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .”
Complaining about inhumane conditions, abuses, or violations of law at shelters is a constitutionally protected right. A volunteer, rescuer, or any other member of the public not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses and violations of law committed by a government shelter, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified.
Section 1983 forced a shelter to reinstate a rescuer who was banned after speaking out against neglect and cruelty when a dog was allowed to die of pneumonia with marked starvation.
A family is suing the Gloucester County Animal Shelter under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violating their civil rights when the shelter killed their cat within hours, instead of waiting for the seven days mandated by law.
Fancy Cats Rescue Team successfully sued Baltimore County Animal Services under Section 1983 when the pound tried to silence rescuers and volunteers. The result: the shelter was forced to abandon its illegal policies, volunteers and rescuers spoke out, the pound was forced to clean up its act, and killing has declined by more than half.
There would be little hope of progress in improving the conditions at municipal animal shelters if rescuers, volunteers, and No Kill advocates—the very people who are the most knowledgeable about those conditions—could be intimidated into remaining silent by the threat of retaliation. Thus, Section 1983 is a powerful tool not only to obtain justice for people unfairly treated by government officials, but to insure that rescuers and animal shelter reformers can continue their critically important work in saving lives and educating the public about our broken animal shelter system.
You are the voice of the voiceless. Know your rights.
The Baltimore County Animal Services organization found itself in additional trouble as the following letter from the American Civil Liberties Union explains. The letter discusses the precise problems which Johnson and the Montgomery County government are causing by their attempts to stifle expression about the Animal Shelter. The ACLU’s letter follows.