Free-speaking trashman heads for college

Friday, January 8, 1999

Keen Umbehr...
Keen Umbehr

Keen Umbehr's Solid Waste Systems — the trash company whose court battle ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that private contractors working for the government retain their First Amendment rights — ran its last route last week.

This week, Umbehr, who has spent much of his life hanging from the back end of a garbage truck, watched the new trash collector from his kitchen as he and his wife, Eileen, enjoyed breakfast together.

“We're just sitting here having our coffee,” Umbehr said in a telephone interview from his home in Alma, Kan. “For the first time in 18 years, we took our trash out to the curb. It was a unique experience.”

Although off the route for less than a week, Umbehr is itching to start his new career as a First Amendment attorney.

“I've got all kinds of energy now,” he said. “It's amazing how working outside drains you. Now I'm kind of bouncing off the walls here.”

Umbehr won't stay idle long. Next week, he starts classes at Kansas State University to earn a bachelor's degree in political science. After three years, he hopes to enroll at Washburn Law School in Topeka to get his law degree.

No need to wait for legal experience with the First Amendment. He's already got that.

In 1992, Umbehr sued the Wabaunsee County commissioners after they tried to cancel his trash-hauling contracts in retaliation for columns he wrote criticizing the commission in a local newspaper. Umbehr took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1996.

Free-speech advocates hail the case for expanding First Amendment protection to tens of thousands of government contractors. The Freedom Forum last year presented Umbehr with a Free Spirit Award, the organization's highest honor.

“He has been an inspiration to all of us working in the First Amendment field,” said Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman. “With his becoming a lawyer, he will be a valuable ally.”

McMasters marveled at the thought of the 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound Umbehr pleading a First Amendment case to a judge or jury.

“A vision of this huge hulk of a man with his wonderful grasp of the issues and the law representing someone in court would be something else. I would love to be there,” McMasters said. “He's a huge man with a dominating presence, but he has a way of putting thoughts into words that cut to the quick. His physical presence is matched by his intellectual presence.”

Umbehr said respect for the First Amendment and other constitutional ideals stretches back to his childhood, when he was a student at American private schools in foreign countries.

As an oil-company supplier, Umbehr's father moved his family from country to country. Even before he graduated from high school, Umbehr, now 40, had lived in Nigeria, South Africa, Singapore and England.

For American students abroad, American history class was like a study in different faiths, Umbehr said. While they studied the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other democratic principles, they didn't actually see them in action.

“We were American students, but we were not living the American experience,” Umbehr said. “We got to see firsthand the contrasts between America and countries that didn't have First Amendment rights or constitutional rights.”

Umbehr met Eileen, his future wife, in Singapore. After graduating from school in England, he and Eileen moved stateside and were married.

The Umbehrs soon settled in Alma, his father's hometown and the first place Umbehr had stayed long enough to put down roots. On April 7, 1981, he ran his first trash route for his new company, Solid Waste Systems.

For nearly 10 years, Umbehr worked a contract for Wabaunsee County without complaints or missed days.

But the warm relationship started to cool in 1989 when the county commission announced that it planned to raise landfill rates for commercial dumping from $600 a month to $1,200. As the owner of the only commercial refuse company in the county, Umbehr requested official records detailing the need for the rate hike.

“I thought: Surely they've done some cost analysis or study or something. They wouldn't do something 'just cause,'” Umbehr said. “But that's what we found out. It was cause.”

Umbehr wrote about the lack of a study in a column for the Alma Signal-Enterprise.

Under pressure from Umbehr and other citizens, the commission addressed the issue in a public hearing but refused to take questions. Umbehr said one commissioner threatened him with arrest if he didn't sit down and shut up.

Umbehr's column, called “My Perspective,” became a weekly item in the Signal-Enterprise. The trashman, in turn, became a regular fixture at commission meetings.

Over the next two years, Umbehr wrote articles about closed and illegal commission meetings. A series of articles exposing the commission's loaning of county road and bridge equipment to friends and political supporters led the Kansas attorney general and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to conclude that taxpayer resources had been improperly used.

Eventually, the commissioners terminated the county's advertising with the newspaper and eventually Umbehr's own trash-hauling contract.

In May 1991, Umbehr sued the county commission for violating his First Amendment rights. In late 1993, a federal district court ruled that independent contractors do not have the same First Amendment protections as government employees. But in January 1995, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision.

The county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 28, 1996, the court ruled 7-2 in Umbehr's favor.

“I tell you it was like a waterfall of emotions,” Umbehr said. “We were jumping up and down screaming.”

Newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times splashed the decision prominently on their pages. Back home, The Topeka Capital-Journal hailed the ruling and wrote: “We all are a bit freer today.”

“Of course, government bureaucrats will see it differently. They view people such as Umbehr as irritants,” the editorial continued. “Know what? They are. Fact is, truly good citizens can be very irritating to the government: They show up at meetings, take notes, request action and demand accountability.

“That's America, baby. Deal with it,” wrote the paper, which named Umbehr its “Distinguished Kansan” for that year.

Eventually, Umbehr and the county settled out of court for $275,000. After paying off attorney fees, Umbehr figures he netted about $100,000.

“It was not a big-money case,” Umbehr said. “But I got an education to go with it. I was sad to see [the case] go.”

Perhaps the legal challenges aren't gone yet. Although Umbehr's a good five years from becoming a lawyer, he's already mounting another First Amendment challenge in nearby Manhattan, Kan.

This time the battle will be over curfew laws.

The Umbehrs decided to challenge Manhattan's curfew law after police arrested their 17-year-old son Josh for violating curfew last year. The Umbehrs say the law unfairly restricts the rights of youngsters to assemble.

“They tell kids to respect the law and constitutional rights, but they also tell them they have to graduate before they have all of their rights,” Umbehr said. “How do you have graduated rights? Either you're pregnant or you're not.”

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to file a lawsuit next month on the Umbehrs' behalf.

In the meantime, Umbehr says he will focus most of his attention on his studies.

“I start class a week from tomorrow,” he said. “From then on, it's going to be fast and furious.”