Another US government agency known as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has managed to put itself at the center of yet another free speech and censorship controversy and get accused of abusing authority by overstepping its powers.
In this case, the CFPB, said to have massive jurisdiction and power that goes along with it, has taken a small mortgage company to court because of what has been said on a radio show and a podcast. This is now treated by those fighting the lawsuit as a First Amendment violation and an authority violation, as per the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
The nonbank mortgage firm (a form of alternative money lending financial institution) is Townstone Financial, based out of the Chicago area.
But the problem the CFPB has with Townstone is not financial dealings per se and has more to do with the company’s position on social issues such as crime.
Namely, the lawsuit was filed at the height of not only the pandemic but race-related social upheaval in the US in 2020. No wonder, perhaps, that the CFPB was quick to “pull the trigger” and allege that the firm, its owner, Barry Sturner, and others with ties with Townstone, were guilty of making public statements that “would” result in discouraging black loan-seekers from applying for a mortgage by complaining about the rising crime in the city.
In the fullness of time, it looks like yet another “canceling” attempt, and at the time the CFPB in its role of Goliath in this legal battle didn’t even bother giving some examples of how Townstone’s customers were mistreated/discriminated against.
The CFPB went instead for discrediting Sturner for his speech, specifically statements made over the previous years (2020 was also the year when trying to dig up real or perceived controversial and racially charged comments from the past was very much “en vogue”).
The comments in question were made on a weekly radio and podcast program called the Townstone Financial Show. Sturner was heard describing rampant crime happening on weekends on Chicago’s South side, saying it was perpetrated by “hoodlums,” and that it was the police who were to be credited for preventing the city becoming “a real war zone.”
The CFPB also took umbrage with descriptions of the neighborhoods where, due to the crime levels, one wants to drive through “very fast,” and not make eye contact.
It is these statements that the government agency asserted had the goal of discouraging applicants for the company’s services based on their race – given that the neighborhoods in question are majority black.
Now observers – and legal experts such as those with the Pacific Legal Foundation public interest nonprofit – say there is cause for concern surrounding this case for several reasons.
Standing out among those is what these critics refer to as a flagrant attempt to apply anti-discrimination rules “to speech made to a general audience in a mass-media venue rather than to individual customers or employees in a workplace.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Townstone in this dispute, filed a brief claiming that should the CFPB be allowed to carry out enforcement in this way, that would arrogate, i.e., unjustifiably give the agency the right to censor speech.
The passage of time and the big picture have not resulted in the CFPB rethinking its approach; federal Judge Franklin Valderrama of the Northern District of Illinois in February threw out the lawsuit, distinguishing in his findings – and backing up his arguments with applicable laws – between actually discriminating against applicants, and “discouraging” them from applying in the way Townstone is being accused of doing.
But the CFPB decided that the right way to proceed was to press on and so the agency appealed in early April. It doesn’t matter that Chicago’s new Mayor Brandon Johnson is now, three years later, making similar statements about the crime epidemic in Chicago’s neighborhoods.
And Johnson, was, unlike Sturner, not appreciative of the police work in quite the same way – in fact, reports said, he was one of those who had ties with the “defund the police” movement several years ago.
Why that is the case is more clear from the Pacific Legal Foundation’s brief, which said that if the CFPB’s take on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act is accepted as valid – “anyone employed by or associated with a consumer finance firm who makes a random comment on social media could be subject to punishment by the agency.”
“Policy makers interested in a real discussion about crime and public safety should arrest the CFPB’s crude attempts at censorship,” writes Competitive Enterprise Institute’s John Berlau.