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The City Department of Sanitation is targeting a Queens tenants’ union for flyers posted last winter.

Three weeks ago, the agency subpoenaed Ridgewood Tenants Union to locate billing statements and contact information for the group’s Google Voice number, in what appears to be an attempt to pinpoint a specific individual the agency can issue a violation to.

Group members said that the subpoena represents a move to silence organizers and could establish a dangerous precedent for suppressing political protest.

Freedom of Speech, or Litter?

“The fact that the Department of Sanitation or any other agency can easily retrieve personal information from groups is extremely alarming,” said tenant organizer Raquel Namuche.

“Activist groups are already facing a lot of political repression and we don’t need another obstacle placed in front of us when we are fighting for our freedom.”

Under city law, it is illegal to paste a flyer on most structures and property both public and city-owned, including trees, utility poles, garbage bins and hydrants.

Belinda Mager, a Department of Sanitation spokesperson, said the agency regularly responds to 311 complaints about illegal posting and “conducts proactive patrols to investigate and remove these eyesores.”

From October 2018 to September 2019, the agency issued 4,706 violations for illegal posting, Mager said.

The tenants union has yet to formally receive a violation.

The subpoena does not detail the content or location of the flyers, and instead merely outlines a date range of this past January to February. The union’s attorney, Michael Grinthal of Take Root Justice, said that the group has pushed back on the subpoena because of concerns about whether the First Amendment right to free speech is being violated.

Hoping for Anonymity in Fighting Amazon

This past winter, the union was mounting a campaign against Amazon’s plans to open a headquarters in Long Island City. Mailers and flyers circulated during this time period focused on Assemblymember Cathy Nolan’s support for the deal and urged residents to call her office.

Tenants Union members during a February, 2019 meeting. Credit: Courtesy of the Ridgewood Tenants Union

In the union’s attempts to fight the subpoena, the Sanitation Department has maintained that under city law, it has the right to issue subpoenas to obtain telephone records to determine both the identity and address of individuals “reasonably believed to have defaced property owned by the city of New York,” according to correspondence from the department to the tenants’ lawyers.

Grinthal said the subpoena could have a chilling effect on individuals who wish to speak up publicly, and compel them to “think twice” before doing something as mundane as passing out flyers, which could turn up posted.

“If groups choose not to put their name on statements that’s a very important right that we have and people choose it for good reasons,” he added.

“And to be unmasked is to say that you will never actually have a secure right to be anonymous.”

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