Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association deliver signed petitions to the City Clerks office.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association filed a lawsuit last year alleging the City violated petition gatherers’ First Amendment rights. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The City of San Antonio did not violate free speech rights of the firefighters union last year when the City restricted union-backed petitioners from gathering signatures at libraries and senior centers, according to U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

Rodriguez ruled in favor of the City because the union, which filed the lawsuit in July last year, could not prove that the City’s rules regarding “free speech zones” hampered the union’s ability to collect signatures, the judge wrote in his ruling.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association was seeking signatures from residents to place three propositions on the November 2018 ballot. The union succeeded, and ultimately two of the three measures were approved by voters. Proposition B limited the salary of future city managers, and Proposition C granted the union the right to call for binding arbitration – which the union exercised this summer. Arbitration is expected to start in December.

Free speech zones were established by the City to allow petitioning and similar free speech activities to occur while protecting libraries’ ability to function. Senior centers don’t have such zones because they aren’t considered public forums for political activity, Rodriguez wrote, and “these restrictions are also consistent with the senior center’s goal of protecting the seniors from ‘political pressure’ and ‘avoiding the appearance of bias or favoritism.'”

The union argued that the zones were too far away from the facilities to effectively communicate with members of the public entering them.

In some cases, the staff of at least one library and one senior center called the San Antonio Police Department. Some petitioners were threatened with arrest when they refused to leave, but no one was arrested or charged with crimes associated with their petition gathering.

The union also argued that the signs put up near the zones informing residents of their rights when interacting with the petitioners used intimidating language.

A sign with general information about petitioners' and residents' rights was displayed at libraries across San Antonio during the petition drive.
A sign with general information about petitioners’ and residents’ rights was displayed at libraries across San Antonio during the fire union’s petition drive in 2018.

“The signs displayed factually accurate information informing library patrons of their rights with respect to any petition solicitation,” Rodriguez wrote.

Click here to download the judge’s ruling, which granted the City its request for summary judgment on all elements of the case in its favor.

“First Amendment rights are a priority for the City along with the interests the City must balance for its patrons,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said via text. “We are pleased to see the court rule in favor of the City of San Antonio’s ability to manage free speech areas, which allow residents to express themselves freely without disrupting services for patrons of our facilities.”

An attorney for the union did not return a request for comment by deadline.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com