Federal Court Rejects Attempt to Prevent Farmworkers, Maryland Legal Aid from Communicating Ruling Reinforces First Amendment Rights
For Immediate Release
May 4, 2017
TAKOMA PARK, MD - Just as the growing season gets under way and migrant farmworkers settle into jobs at farms, orchards, and nurseries across the region, Maryland's federal district court has issued a powerful ruling reinforcing that workers and advocates have First Amendment rights to communicate freely about legal and social services. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland joins Maryland Legal Aid today in hailing the decision, which sets a vital precedent protecting the First Amendment freedoms of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in our state, and those who advocate on their behalf. These protections are essential to helping ensure that workers are not subjected to illegal and dangerous workplace conditions.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Greenbelt in spring 2016, challenges as unconstitutional a year-long "no-trespass" order issued by Montgomery County police to Maryland Legal Aid advocates who sought to visit and provide legal information to migrant farmworkers living on-site at Lewis Orchards, a farm in Montgomery County. Although the no trespass order was rescinded by police in immediate response to the lawsuit, the parties remain at odds about the scope of First Amendment rights available to the workers and advocates, and the plaintiffs' entitlement to relief for the harms they suffered. The Court ruling establishes legal principles governing the case, and allows the matter to proceed to discovery and trial on disputed factual issues.
"This ruling is a great win for the farmworker community," said Nohora Rivero, of Maryland Legal Aid, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "During my almost 24 years visiting farmworkers, I have had numerous unpleasant experiences with aggressive growers who sought to prevent us from talking to workers. Sometimes there is fear as to what may happen when a grower shows up during our meeting. I am excited about the impact the decision will have on the farmworker and service provider community nationwide," said Rivero.
Shawn Boehringer, Chief Counsel of Maryland Legal Aid, agreed: "Maryland Legal Aid represents farmworkers with H2A visas, lawful permanent residents, and U.S. citizens, who do difficult work. We all reap the benefit of their labor in the food we eat every day. The workers are often isolated and vulnerable to illegal practices-they may not be paid promised wages or live in substandard housing, or face hazards such as pesticide exposure. The Court's ruling recognizes that service providers-health care, social, or legal aid workers-have a First Amendment right to enter onto farms to provide information to workers about their legal rights and responsibilities and other crucial social services. This constitutional right assists workers to enjoy other basic human rights to a living wage, a safe workplace, healthcare, and adequate housing."
In his ruling, United States District Judge Paul W. Grimm notes that advocates and migrant farmworkers are routinely subjected to unlawful interference with their right to communicate, underscoring the need for clear rules. He reiterates that in order for free speech in this context to have meaning, the rights of both the workers and legal aid advocates must be upheld: "I would simply observe that when it comes to speech, it takes two to communicate. Migrant farmworkers' right to receive information, which the County Defendants acknowledge, would have little force if it did not also ... protect providers' right to contact the workers."
On August 18, 2015, Maryland Legal Aid employees Nohora Rivero and a law clerk visited Lewis Orchards in Dickerson, Maryland, to speak with migrant workers about their rights and available social services and to listen to their concerns. After work hours, Rivero spoke with workers, who had H-2A visas, at their residences on the farm. During the visit, farm owners Robert and Linda Lewis confronted Rivero and the law clerk, threatening them with arrest if they did not leave immediately. When Rivero said the workers had a right to visit with legal counsel in their homes, the Lewis' called Montgomery County police. Police then arrived and directed the Maryland Legal Aid employees to leave the farm and also issued an order barring them from returning to the farm to visit workers for a year, on threat of arrest, despite Rivero showing them an Attorney General's opinion which supported their right to be there. As a result, Maryland Legal Aid was unable to assist workers with their employment concerns last year, and was unable to return to Lewis Orchards from that time until rescission of the order after the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
"During this era of fear for many immigrants in our communities, Judge Grimm's powerful ruling provides a timely and important reinforcement of the rights of advocates to offer help, share information, raise concern about possible civil rights abuses and access justice for our most marginalized and vulnerable workers," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.
"We're very pleased by Judge Grimm's thoughtful, careful articulation of Maryland Legal Aid's First Amendment rights and we're very proud of our work with ACLU on this case," said attorney Robert W. Cobbs, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, a lead counsel in the case.
The plaintiffs are represented by pro bono attorneys Kit A. Pierson and Robert W. Cobbs of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, DC, and ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon, Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah, and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.
Go to the ACLU of Maryland website to download the lawsuit and court decision and to learn more: http://aclu-md.org/
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