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Even government has right to free speech, court rules in Santa Clara Waste Water suit

Ventura County Star - 12/1/2017

Dec. 01--Even the government has the First Amendment right to free speech.

That's what a state appeals panel said Thursday, ruling that Ventura County regulators could describe as "hazardous waste" a chemical they found in 2015 at a closed waste processing plant near Santa Paula.

The Santa Clara Waste Water Co. sued to keep the Ventura County Environmental Health Division from calling the chemical Petromax "hazardous waste." The company, which is facing criminal charges over a 2014 explosion at the plant, sought a hearing first to determine whether the description of the cleaning agent was true.

County attorneys asked a lower-court judge to overturn the Santa Clara suit on the grounds it was an attempt to chill free speech. They invoked a law that protects people who speak out on public issues from bogus lawsuits aimed at silencing them.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Rocky Baio denied the county's request. But the three-judge panel in the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed it unanimously.

The appellate judges discounted the possibility the description of Petromax as "hazardous waste" harmed the company without an enforcement action.

Santa Clara's "lawsuit is simply attacking the Division's right of free speech, " the 12-page ruling said.

The company argued that only a neutral magistrate could call Petromax "hazardous waste" after a notice and hearing. Petromax has been described by the business as a non-toxic industrial tank cleaner.

Assistant County Counsel Eric Walts said the matter did not qualify for a hearing because regulators had merely put the words "hazardous waste" in a notice, not an enforcement action. The agency deferred enforcement to the District Attorney's Office, which is handling the criminal case against the company and various managers and officers.

Attorney Andrew Gilford, who represents the company, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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(c)2017 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

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