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HUD BACKS OFF, SAYS PEACEFUL PROTESTS ARE OK

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said Friday that it would no longer act against people who challenged its decisions with letter-writing, pamphleteering or other forms of peaceful protest.

The decision came in response to complaints from people who protested the department's decisions in Berkeley, Calif., and Manhattan and who then came under investigations by the department in which they were told to turn over diaries, phone messages and other personal papers.In Berkeley, the complaints were over a HUD proposal for housing for the poor. The Manhattan case involved a proposed home for the mentally ill.

At the time, the department said it acted under the Fair Housing Act to protect the interests of those who would have lived in the proj-ects.

But Friday, the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, Roberta Achtenberg, said HUD would only investigate cases in which the protesters resorted to physical harm or coercion.

The department said it would not intervene when protesters distributed written material to the public or to news organizations, held community meetings, demonstrated peacefully or communicated with government officials, Achtenberg said.

"Citizens have a right to participate in the fundamental affairs of their community," she said. But she added, "When confronted with a complaint that someone relentlessly harassed and intimidated a neighbor, HUD will stand up for the proposition that there is no place for such behavior in America."

Achtenberg said that the department received 10,000 complaints under the Fair Housing Act each year but that only 34 of those filed in 1993 showed a violation of free speech rights by the protesters. Under the new guidelines, 11 of the 34 would be dismissed, she said.