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Fire Union Files Federal Free Speech Lawsuit Against City

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Fire union president Chris Steele speaks outside the Julia Yates Semmes Library on Nacodoches rd in Northeast San Antonio

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is filing a federal lawsuit against the city over its “free speech areas” at city libraries. The union claims the city violated the First Amendment when it prevented union petitioners from entering the buildings.

When the fire union gathered signatures for its charter amendment petitions at some city libraries in March, union officials said library staffers asked the petitioners to stay a few dozen feet away from the libraries' front doors. The city confirms the petitioners were asked to move to another part of the library grounds.

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Union President Chris Steele said that kept them from interacting with some of the patrons, which violated their free speech rights.

“Not only are these rights to petition your government protected by federal law, but it's also protected by the state law and should be protected by the city of San Antonio charter,” Steele said.

The fire union held a news conference Thursday at the Julia Yates Semmes Library on the Northeast side, where they said one of the incidents happened.


“This is where we were told that if we came any closer we would be arrested; can you imagine that? Be arrested,” Steele said. “And this isn’t the only incident.”


San Antonio spokesman Jeff Coyle said all of the city’s libraries have designated areas for campaigning or political activity.


“The purpose of that is to prevent blocking the access to the library from people who just want to come here and rent books from being stopped and harassed over political issues,” Coyle said.   


The city has had a policy since 2013 that restricts political activity to designated areas on library grounds. Coyle said each library has a different requirement.

The union isn’t seeking any financial damages but instead is asking for the city’s policy to be deemed unconstitutional.


This is not the first legal dispute between the city and fire union. The city and fire union have been in a stalemate in collective bargaining contract negations for nearly four years.


The city had sued over an evergreen clause in its last contract with the fire union. The city lost that suit in two lower courts and the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear it giving a victory to the fire union.


The union did collect enough signatures for its charter amendment petitionsto be placed on the November ballot. The proposed charter amendments call for public voteson reducing the required number of petition signatures for rescinding city ordinances and limiting the city manager’s salary.


Joey Palacios can be reached at joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @joeycules

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules