April 01, 2002
C.O. Claims Censorship Over Slur of bin Laden
by Paul Brooks, Times Herald-Record
Newburgh State correction Officer David Melendez never thought it would be a problem when he wrote "USA #1" and "Bin Laden sucks" in magic marker on the back window of his car. Terrorists had attacked his country, the country he served for three years in the Army and Reserves. "I wanted to show my support," Melendez said.
But on March 14, a lieutenant at the minimum security women's prison in Beacon where Melendez works ordered Melendez to take the slogans off his car or not to park the car on state property. Staff park their cars in the center of the facility, which has no fences or walls, Melendez said.
"I couldn't believe that after all this time, it would ever be an issue," Melendez said. "I warned him that I planned to go somewhere because no way was I going to allow someone to trample on my civil rights."
What he did was remove the slogans and replace them the next day with an obscene reference to bin Laden and bin Laden's mother. And he wrote "USA all the way."
Same result. Melendez was ordered to go home and remove the offending passages. He returned in a different vehicle with a slogan written in the window saying he had lost his right to free speech as a correction officer.
Remove it too, he said he was ordered. "I did what I was told," Melendez said. "I have no choice. ... If I am suspended, I can't provide for my family."
A spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services, which runs the prison system, said the issue was more one of safety than free speech.
"If a correction officer wants to drive around town displaying messages like this on his own personal vehicle, that is certainly his right," spokesman Mike Houston said. "But when he drives his car on state property and parks it in an area where he intends for inmates to see the sign, he is potentially endangering the safety of his coworkers and others; and that the commissioner will not allow."
Some of the facility's Muslims had told clergy they felt uncomfortable about the first slogans on Melendez's car, Houston said.
"When it was brought to our attention people were uncomfortable, we took immediate action," Houston said.
Melendez's actions did not reflect well on the department and were obscene, both of which violate state regulations, Houston said. However, Melendez was not disciplined since he complied with the orders.
Melendez has filed a grievance against the state officials.
"When they do something that is wrong, I am going to bring it to light," he said. "I didn't ask for it, but I am stuck with it."