From: Letwin, Michael
Sent: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 8:48 PM
To: ALAA MEMBERS; 1199 Members
Subject: Urgent Appeal to ALAA Members: Defend Free Speech at Legal Aid
Importance: High

The attached Word document provides background and context in opposition to the proposed surrender of free speech rights on the union email lists, which is scheduled for a vote at this Thursday’s Joint Council meeting.

*To endorse this statement, please say so in a “reply all” message.*

Urgent Appeal to ALAA Members: Defend Free Speech at Legal Aid
September 15, 2009

Decades of free speech rights at Legal Aid are under serious attack.

On its face, the threat comes from management’s attempt to ban free speech on the union email list,[1] and a parallel ban against postings on the outside of doors to internal offices and workspaces.

But according to management and ALAA leaders, the driving force behind these policies are demands by union members and others to censor speech critical of U.S./Israeli policies.

If implemented, the ALAA office will be allowed to post email messages, but “the system may not be used as a forum for discussion of those announcements.” The ban “will be strictly enforced,” and violators will face “disciplinary action that may result in discharge from employment.”

The union has previously voted to grieve such email restrictions. But now, to avoid arbitration, union leadership advocates a “compromise” (attached) that, citing the very management policies in dispute, prohibits discussion on the union email list, and offers no free speech protection on “personal” email groups.

For the reasons below, the undersigned urges all members—regardless of political opinion—to direct union representatives at the September 17 Joint Council to vote against surrendering free speech rights at Legal Aid.

Free Speech Rights at Legal Aid

ALAA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement provides unambiguous protection for free speech: “The expression of personal religious, political, social or economic beliefs of each and every attorney is fully guaranteed.” § 3.5.

In that spirit, the Society joined ALAA and 1199 to defend attorneys’ right to wear “Ready to Strike” buttons in court, Frankel v. Roberts, 165 AD2d 382 (1st Dept. 1991), and to challenge the Giuliani administration’s retaliation for the 1994 strike.

The CBA also provides that, “The Union will have reasonable use of the Society’s internal communication mechanisms.” § 1.5.

For decades, the union and its members have exercised that right through access to LAS bulletin boards, individual office doors, staff mailboxes, telephones, fax machines, and/or conference rooms. This discourse has often included controversial political speech.

By the late 1990s, discussion had largely migrated to the Society’s email system. In 2000, management established union email lists.[2] Recognizing that free speech is essential, most members have debated, blocked or simply ignored content they dislike.

9/11: Censorship Rears Its Head

The following details the progression of censorship at Legal Aid since 9/11.

*October 26, 2001. Allen Popper (then ALAA Vice-President for CDD-Queens) unsuccessfully demands that the United Auto Workers remove ALAA president Michael Letwin for his vocal leadership of New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), which opposes the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies.[3]

*October 28, 2001. ALAA’s citywide officers refute false claims that, in opposing the war, Letwin has purported to speak on behalf of the union.[4]

*February 21, 2002. After five months of obstruction by Popper and others, the ALAA Delegate Council overwhelmingly condemns the Bush administration’s attack on civil liberties and immigrant rights.[5]

*April 5, 2002. Popper files a grievance claiming that email messages “condemning Israel, supporting the Palestinians” are “antisemitic” [sic]. On threat of legal action against Legal Aid, he demands that the senders “be suspended or fired,” and that any staff attorney “who attends said [Palestinian rights] rally as a legal advisor be suspended.”

*June 13, 2002. Management unsuccessfully tries to impose a unilateral ban of all discussion on the union e-mail lists.

*2003-2006. Popper and other members—while posting their own political or other “non-work” messages—reportedly continue to demand that management ban messages critical of the war and/or Israel.

*July 2006. Popper (now in CDD-Brooklyn) files a grievance about an allegedly “anti semetic [sic] flyer” left on his desk.[6] The grievance is denied.

*June 12, 2007. Management and union leadership says that Popper, other unidentified union members, and/or the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL) have threatened to contact the City Council about “anti-Semitic” Antiwar Bulletins posted on the union email lists.[7] As a result, management tells Letwin not to post any messages about Israel or Iraq.[8]

*October 28, 2008. Management says that, in response to complainants that management would not identify, Letwin must remove a “Free Palestine” sticker from his office door. Brooklyn CDD members protest this policy by posting various materials on their own office doors, in response to which management suspends its order pending arbitration of the overall speech ban.

*January 13, 2009. Forty-four ALAA and 1199 members (many of them Jewish) issue a statement condemning Israel’s attack on Gaza.[9][9] Management receives additional censorship demands.

*May 12, 2009. After extensive discussion, Brooklyn CDD ALAA proposes an Open Letter to Steven Banks: Defend Free Speech at Legal Aid (below*), which is designed to enlist members in a campaign to have the free speech ban withdrawn, before ever reaching arbitration.

ALAA’s Executive Board rejects Brooklyn’s proposal as needlessly provocative to management, unpopular with members and insulting to union leaders. The leadership has yet to inform all members of the history and context of management’s censorship plans.

*August 2009. Union leaders criticize the targeted political speech as “divisive,” and argue that “we have no choice” but to accept management’s “compromise” that forbids collective discussion on union email lists.

*September 17, 2009. ALAA Joint Council to vote on management’s free speech ban.

Expediency or Principle?

For the reasons below, the free speech ban is just plain wrong.

*As Brooklyn CDD union representatives (both supporters and opponents of Israeli policy) have pointed out to management, antiwar and “Free Palestine” opinions are—like earlier demands to “Free South Africa”—clearly not ethnic slurs, but protected political speech.

*Accepting such a content-motivated speech ban—without even a fight—would make us complicit in the very post-9/11 witch-hunting, Islamophobia and erosion of civil liberties ALAA has previously vowed to oppose. It also invites demands for givebacks in other areas, of which there have already been many.[10]

*Surrender to a ban on email discussion (or posting on office doors) won’t resolve this issue. Those of us who are against the war and who support Palestinian rights will employ other forms of speech at the workplace and on newly established off-site union lists. What happens when the censors try to silence that free speech?

*The “compromise” isn’t. It simply tracks a speech ban that blatantly violates our contractual rights.

*By taking the moral high ground, a public membership-based campaign, with support from civil liberties and community allies, can effectively generate pressure on management to withdraw its free speech ban—without ever going to arbitration.


(List in formation; affiliations listed for identification only.)

*Noha Arafa (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; ALAA Alt. Vice-President)
*Julie Fry (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; ALAA Vice-President)
*Michael Letwin (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; former ALAA Pres., 1990-2002)
*Susan Olivia Morris (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; ALAA Executive Bd., LGBT Rep.)
*Ivan Pantoja (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; ALAA Executive Bd., Jr. Atty. Rep.)
*Azalia Torres (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn; former member, ALAA Executive Bd.)
*Jennifer Burkavage (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn, Delegate)
*Steve Terry (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)
*Florence Morgan (Criminal Defense-Queens)
*Mimi Rosenberg (Civil-Brooklyn)
*Antonia Codling (Criminal Defense-Bronx; former member, ALAA Executive Bd.)
*Roslyn Morrison (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)
*Patrick Langhenry (Civil-Brooklyn)
*Marisa Benton (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)
*Janet Forrester (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)
*Lisa Edwards (Harlem Community Law Office)
*Brian Hutchinson (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)
*Reda Woodcock (Criminal Defense-Brooklyn)

*Open Letter to Steven Banks: Defend Free Speech at Legal Aid

Submitted by Brooklyn CDD, May 12, 2009

The undersigned ALAA and 1199 members at The Legal Aid Society in New York City are alarmed and disappointed by your attempt to undermine our longstanding free speech rights by seeking to prohibit posted materials on individual office doors and to abolish collective discussion by union members on the Legal Aid email system.

The new policy violates ALAA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which provides that “The expression of personal religious, political, social or economic beliefs of each and every attorney is fully guaranteed,” and that “The Union will have reasonable use of the Society’s internal communication mechanisms.” §§ 3.5, 1.5.

The policy also betrays decades of past practice and fundamental democratic principles. Moreover, it would have a devastating effect on our individual and collective ability to function as union members.

It is especially reprehensible that the new policy reflects an ongoing attempt to silence particular political opinions. Regardless of whether we agree with those viewpoints, attempts to chill their expression — either directly or indirectly — are an indefensible attack on the rights of all union members.

We expect you as Attorney-in-Chief to stand up for free speech at The Legal Aid Society by withdrawing this new policy, and look forward to your prompt reply.

[2] Rather than continuing to enumerate each and every type of rapidly changing communications technology, § 1.5 was shortened to its current overarching language.

[3] NYCLAW’s initial statement of September 27, 2001 was ultimately signed by 1,254 trade unionists, including fifty-eight union presidents (three from the UAW); fifty-eight ALAA members; and twenty-three Legal Aid 1199 members. 9.11 5th Anniversary: NYC Labor Against the War(9.27.01),

[4] Michael Letwin, George Albro and Charlotte Hitchcock, Labor Against the War Statement(October 28, 2001), See also, Zuss: 9/11 and NYC Labor Against the War (NYCLAW),; Michael Letwin, Support for UAW Local 2325 Antiwar Resolution (April 14, 2003),

[5] “As a labor union whose members fight each day for the statutory and constitutional rights of indigent New Yorkers, The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, is deeply opposed to the Bush administration’s broad assault on precious civil liberties and democratic rights.” In Defense of Civil Liberties, February 21, 2002,

[6] Questioned by management, Letwin replies, “While I did not leave anything on Allen Popper’s desk, the flyer in question condemns U.S.-Israeli policy—a position shared by many Jews, including me—and is in no way anti-Semitic.”

[7] The ADL routinely brands as “anti-Semitic” supporters of Palestinian rights (including those who are Jewish). Its recent targets include Nobel peace laureates Jimmy Carter, Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk; former Irish President and 2009 Medal of Freedom recipient Mary Robinson; Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson; former US Congress Member Cynthia McKinney; university professors; and trade unionists. Last month, for suggesting modest limits on illegal Israeli settlements, the ADL fired warning shots across Barack Obama’s bow.

[8] Antiwar Bulletins and other materials continued to be posted by Letwin and others, including Antonia Codling (July 2, 2007), Noha Arafa (September 10, 2007), Azalia Torres (October 23, 2007), Julie Fry (March 21, 2008), and Marisa Benton (April 15, 2008).

[9] Legal Aid NYC Union Members: Stop Israel’s Massacre in Gaza and End the Siege Now(January 23, 2009),

[10] See, e.g., Bob Zuss and Susan Morris, Vote No (December 13, 2004), ; Michael Letwin, The Real Issues in This Election (May 16, 2007), .

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