Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Small Town Showdown is the true
story of Keen A. Umbehr, a trashman who dared to challenge the powers that be in his hometown of Alma, Kansas, population
850. While hauling trash for the towns within Wabaunsee County, Keen also wrote a weekly newspaper column called "My
Perspective" wherein he often criticized the decisions of the local county commissioners. The Board of commissioners
were not accustomed to being challenged, and after an investigation by the State Attorney General's Office and the KBI, the
commissioners voted to terminate the newspaper's designation as the official county paper. Shortly thereafter, they
voted to terminate Keen's trash collection contract, despite the fact that he had provided his customers with ten years of
perfect service - by the grace of God.
After the commissioners terminated the umbrella contract,
five of the six towns decided to sign individual contracts with Keen. His attorneys, Dick Seaton and Brenda Bell, advised
him to file a civil rights lawsuit over the loss of the sixth town, alleging that the commissioners had violated his First
Amendment right of free speech by terminating his contract in retaliation for his public criticisms.
The Umbehrs lost
round one when Federal District Judge Richard Rogers dismissed their action, ruling that private contractors, doing business
with the government, did not enjoy the same First Amendment protections as government employees. Judge Rogers noted that there
was a split of authority on this issue.
At that point, Eileen Umbehr's brother, Robert A. Van Kirk, a graduate of Notre Dame and Duke University School of Law, entered his appearance in the case, working pro bono. Robert
appealed Judge Rogers' decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, where a panel of three judges unanimously
overturned the lower Court's ruling, and sent the case back to District Court for a jury trial.
Before that could happen,
however, the attorney respresenting the insurance company for Wabaunsee County, Donald Patterson, filed for a writ of certiorari
with the United States Supreme Court. Out of nearly 8,000 requests submitted to the Supreme Court that session, less than
80 requests were granted, and the Umbehr case was one of them.
Robert Van Kirk presented oral arguments before the Supreme
Court on November 28, 1995. Seven months later to the day, (and five years after the Umbehrs had initially filed their First
Amendment challenge), on June 28, 1996, the United States Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 ruling in Umbeher's favor (Justices
Scalia and Thomas dissenting).
Keen was named one of eight Distinguished Kansans by the Topeka Capital-Journal for 1996.
On June 18, 1998, Keen was one of twelve individuals receiving the Free Spirit Award and $10,000 from the Freedom Forum.
Small Town Showdown chronicles the conflict between Keen and the commissioners from 1981 through the
final showdown at the Supreme Court. Here are some highlights:
- April 1981: Keen Umbehr
entered into trash removal contract with the Wabaunsee County Commissioners
1989: Umbehr began writing letters to the editor which often criticized the official actions taken by the Board of County
Commissioners; the letters later became a weekly column titled My Perspective.
1989: Commissioners warned local newspaper editor, Bob Stuewe, about publishing Umbehr's column; Stuewe responded in an editorial
stating he would not censor anyone's articles, "regardless of high-pressure tactics."
- February 1990: Commissioners terminated the editor's long-standing designation as official county newspaper; Stuewe
later sold the newspaper and retired
- February 1990: Commissioners attempted to
cancel trash collection contract with Umbehr
- January 1991: Commissioners
successfully terminated trash collection contract with Umbehr
- May 1991:
Umbehr filed a federal lawsuit against the Wabaunsee County Commissioners alleging that his contract was terminated in retaliation
for the critical newspaper articles he wrote
- December 1993: Federal District
Judge Richard Rogers dismissed Umbehr's case, ruling that private contractors do not enjoy the same First Amendment rights
as government employees; Umbehr appealed.
- January 1995: The 10th Circuit
Court of Appeals overturned Judge Rogers' decision stating in part: "We realize that this decision places us squarely
in conflict with several other circuits, a posture we do not adopt lightly. We also agree with the Seventh and Eighth Circuits
that this is an area in which Supreme Court guidance is particularly needed." The County Commissioners appealed to the
U.S. Supreme Court which granted their request for a writ of certiorari. (Out of nearly 8,000 cases seeking review during
that term, the Supreme Court granted approximately 80.)
28, 1996: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Umbehr's favor, setting a national precedent that private contractors have the
same First Amendment rights as government employees (Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting). Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the decision: "Either type of relationship provides a valuable financial benefit,
the threat of the loss of which in retaliation for speech may chill speech on matters of public concern by those who, because
of their dealings with the government, ‘are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they
work,’ Waters v. Churchill. . . . "
In 1999, Keen sold his
trash business to return to college, graduating from Kansas State University in 2001 with honors before enrolling at Washburn
University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. Keen graduated from law school in 2005, passed the bar exam that summer,
and has been in private practice since that time. (See KeenJustice.com)
Keen and Eileen met at the age of 15 when they were both attending Singapore American School
. This summer they will be celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. Keen and Eileen have four sons, Jared, Josh,
Keen II and Kirk Van, ages 24 - 34, four daughters-in-law, five grandsons, and four granddaughters.
"Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your Name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness." ~ Psalm 115:1