INDIANAPOLIS – Two volunteers with Indianapolis Animal Care Services (IACS) filed a lawsuit against the agency and the city of Indianapolis alleging infringement of their constitutional right to free speech.

Volunteers Elaine Thiel and Mianna Ruiz, represented by Gavin Rose of the ACLU of Indiana, said they’ve been threatened with termination for speaking out about conditions at the shelter.

The two said IACS reprimanded them for being critical of IACS and accused them of violating the volunteer code of conduct and policies regarding communications and social media.

The lawsuit names the city of Indianapolis and the deputy director of IACS in her official capacity.

Thiel and Ruiz, both Marion County residents, said they’ve spent hours volunteering each week at the shelter, with Thiel’s volunteer work starting in July 2021 and Ruiz’s in May 2022. They both described themselves as “passionate” about animal welfare.

They claimed IACS has been in a “perpetual state of crisis” for years, according to the lawsuit, with the agency on “emergency intake status” since February 2022. The status means the shelter will only accept animals in emergency situations; animals surrendered at the shelter are at high risk for euthanasia.

In addition, kennels have been at or over capacity throughout 2022 and 2023, the lawsuit said, with dogs often housed in temporary crates lining hallways and offices.

“And the ‘live release rate’ for dogs is depressingly low,” the lawsuit noted, “such that many animals who enter the shelter will not leave the shelter alive.”

The situation at Indianapolis Animal Care Services has become an unexpected flashpoint in this year’s mayoral race. FOX59/CBS4 has also investigated the matter and spoken with whistleblowers concerned about the conditions and the number of animals being euthanized.

Both Thiel and Ruiz spoke to FOX59/CBS4 during a September 2023 investigative piece on IACS. Both also signed on to a letter in July 2023 sent to Mayor Joe Hogsett, members of the City-County Council, the IACS advisory board and the director of the city’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services outlining their concerns.

Subsequent media interviews put the two volunteers under scrutiny. The women said they were speaking on their own terms and not on behalf of IACS. Both had signed the volunteer agreement in which they agreed to abide by the volunteer code of conduct and communications/social media policies that come along with being volunteers.

After signing the letter and speaking to the media, both women were called into meetings. A staff member told Ruiz that other staff and volunteers had become “uncomfortable” with “the advocacy that she (and others) had engaged in,” telling her that failing to change her approach would force her to give up her volunteer duties.

Similarly, Thiel was told to “apologize to staff” for making comments critical of IACS and management. If her comments had “negative outcomes,” she was told, she would lose her volunteer position. Future media inquiries should go to IACS’ public information staff.

From the lawsuit:

“IACS has no interest in suppressing this speech merely because it is critical of IACS and its operations, and the speech in no way threatens IACS’s ability to operate an efficient workplace. Even if IACS did have an interest in suppressing this speech, however, this interest is greatly outweighed by the interests of Ms. Thiel and Ms. Ruiz as well as by the interests of both potential audiences and other current and future IACS volunteers subject to the Volunteer Code of Conduct and the Social Media Policy.”

The lawsuit claims the volunteer code of conduct and social media policies are causing both women “irreparable harm.” It also claims the policies constitute a violation of the women’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing IACS from enforcing the policies, along with plaintiffs’ costs, attorneys’ fees and “all other proper relief.”

We reached out to Mayor Hogsett’s office for comment and were told the city does not comment on pending litigation.