Indy animal shelter volunteers sue city, alleging officials tried to stifle critical speech

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McCoy, a year-old dog, is available for adoption at Indianapolis Animal Care Services.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Indianapolis on behalf of two animal shelter volunteers who allege that Indianapolis Animal Care Services violated their constitutional rights by attempting to restrain speech that was critical of the shelter.

The case—Elaine Thiel and Mianna Ruiz v. City of Indianapolis, Indiana, and the Deputy Director of Indianapolis Animal Care Services, in her official capacity, 1:23-cv-01959—was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. The complaint alleges Indianapolis Animal Care Services, or IACS, violated the volunteers’ First Amendment rights when it enforced its Volunteer Code of Conduct and Social Media Policy.

According to the complaint, Elaine Thiel has been volunteering at the shelter for a little more than eight hours each week since July 2021. Mianna Ruiz, the other plaintiff, has been volunteering about five hours each week since May 2022.

“Ms. Thiel and Ms. Ruiz recognize that many of the challenges faced by IACS—such as staffing shortages, an aging facility, and increased numbers of animals surrendered to the shelter—are largely beyond its control,” the complaint states. “However, they also believe strongly that many of the issues plaguing the shelter have been caused or exacerbated by mismanagement or by an apparent lack of urgency from IACS’s leadership.”

Following a letter signed by 95 other employees and volunteers that was sent to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, members of the Indianapolis City-County Council, members of IACS’s advisory board and the director of the city’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, local media published articles with comments from Thiel and Ruiz.

According to the complaint, neither Thiel nor Ruiz stated or implied that they were speaking on behalf of IACS. However, the day after one of the articles was published, Ruiz was called into a meeting with IACS’s administrator of policy planning.

During the meeting, Ruiz was informed that “some IACS staff and volunteers had become ‘uncomfortable’ with the advocacy that she (and others) had engaged in and that, if she did not change her approach to communications, she would have to ‘separate [her] volunteer relationship’ with IACS,” according to the complaint.

She was also told that her comments were in violation of the provision of IACS’s Volunteer Code of Conduct, which prohibits volunteers from making any “derogatory statements” about IACS.

The administrator of policy planning reiterated in follow-up communications that the provisions of both the Volunteer Code of Conduct and the Social Media Policy requires volunteers to send all media inquiries to specific members of IACS’s staff.

“In these follow-up communications, the Administrator of Policy Planning further reiterated the provision of the Social Media Policy prohibiting volunteers from ‘[u]sing personal online communications to undermine IACS programs or philosophies, our clients, our donors, staff, or other volunteers’ and requiring that ‘suggestions for improvements’ be made ‘through proper channels,’” the complaint states.

Thiel was also called into a meeting with the administrator of policy planning, at which she was told she should “apologize to staff” for her critical comments of IACS and its management. She was also told if her comments had “negative outcomes,” then she would be fired from her volunteer position.

The complaint further states that Thiel and Ruiz were not the only ones who received threats of termination for wanting to speak publicly about the state of the shelter.

According to the complaint, at a “listening session” regarding Indianapolis’ animal welfare crisis held by Indianapolis Republican mayoral candidate Jefferson Shreve, the candidate asked if anyone there had been instructed not to speak with media. Several people said that they had and that they would be terminated from their volunteer positions if they did so.

“Both Ms. Thiel and Ms. Ruiz want to continue speaking publicly—on social media, to the actual media, and elsewhere—about the current state of IACS’s shelter about about their concerns related to the management of the shelter,” the complaint says. “… The issues on which Ms. Thiel and Ms. Ruiz wish to speak are, quite clearly, matters of public concern.”

The complaint is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as costs and fees.

“We are doing this to make sure all volunteers at IACS can speak up and advocate for change,” Thiel and Ruiz said in a statement released by the ACLU of Indiana. “We want the best for the animals of Indianapolis and feel as though continuing to bring light to these issues is necessary for said change.”

“IACS has no interest in suppressing this speech merely because it is critical of IACS and its operations, and the speech in no way threatens IACS’s ability to operate an efficient workplace,” they added in the complaint. “Even if IACS did have an interest in suppressing this speech, however, this interest is greatly outweighed by the interests of Ms. Thiel and Ms. Ruiz as well as by the interests of both potential audiences and other current and future IACS volunteers subject to the Volunteer Code of Conduct and the Social Media Policy.”

Gavin Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said the volunteers “have the right to speak out about issues of public concern.”

“IACS is a government entity, attempting to censor public discourse about the conditions at the shelter,” Rose said in a statement.

According to the complaint, both Thiel and Ruiz intend to continue volunteering because they feel they are offering vital assistance to animals in need.

The Indianapolis Office of Corporation Counsel declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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