May 5, 2010
DHHR violated free speech rights, organizers say
By Alison Knezevich
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leaders of a public workers union say the state Department of Health
and Human Resources violated their First Amendment rights by trying to prevent organizing on
state hospitals' property.
The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the West Virginia Public
Workers Union UE Local 170 have asked the ACLU of West Virginia for help.
On multiple occasions since December, administrators at state hospitals have told security
personnel to call police to ask union members -- who were passing out leaflets near employee
entrances -- to leave, UE field organizer John Thompson said.
The union, which represents workers in other state agencies, started organizing state-hospital
employees in summer 2008.
It now represents about 300 employees at six state hospitals, including nurses and maintenance
workers, Thompson said.
"When we first started, they would not allow us on the state hospital grounds to leaflet,"
Thompson said. "But they did allow meeting space [inside the hospitals] ... Because we had that
limited access, we didn't challenge that ban."
But in November, DHHR officials decided the unions couldn't hold meetings inside hospital
facilities, citing a pending grievance case involving union meetings.
So union members have been distributing leaflets near employee entrances "in defiance of the
ban," Thompson said, at facilities including William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital, Mildred Mitchell-
Bateman Hospital, and Lakin Hospital.
In a letter to state Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities Commissioner Vickie Jones,
ACLU of West Virginia attorney Sarah Brown wrote last week that "as public institutions, the state
hospitals of West Virginia are subject to the requirements of the First Amendment of the United
"In the absence of a significant public interest requiring narrowly tailored limits on the time, place,
and manner of the Union's speech, DHHR may not place a complete ban on leafleting and other
forms of solicitation on public ground outside of the state hospitals," Brown wrote. "If DHHR has
imposed such a ban, it is in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
The letter asks state officials to explain by May 14 "how [they] intend to address violations of the
First Amendment in West Virginia state hospitals."
DHHR spokesman John Law said Wednesday the agency would comply with all state and federal
laws when dealing with any organization seeking contact with employees.
After the ACLU sent the letter, management did not ask union members at Bateman to leave while
leafleting last week, Thompson said.
Issues at the hospitals include understaffing, low pay and mandatory overtime on short notice,
said UE Local 170 organizer Gordon Simmons.
Simmons said the union hasn't had the same access problems at other state agencies.
"This sort of restriction to access to this degree is pretty unusual," he said. "Apparently DHHR,
particularly at the state hospitals, is just feeling the heat in some way."
Union members are also collecting signatures for a petition calling on Health and Human
Resources Secretary Patsy Hardy "to respect their First Amendment rights," Simmons said.