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To Kansas native Keen A. Umbehr, the freedom to write newspaper articles critical of elected officials was his constitutional right.
To the county commissioners he routinely skewered, it was rubbish.
And to the Supreme Court of the United States, it was No. 94-1654, a case that redrew the nation's legal landscape while it captivated the imagination: A garbage man from small-town rural America with a high-school education could, indeed, battle powerful local politicians, take an issue to the highest court in the country and, against all odds, win.
Since 1981, Umbehr had been the trash hauler for Wabaunsee County in northeastern Kansas where, from the back of his garbage truck, he watched county officials conducting county business and came to the simple conclusion that "things just didn't seem right."
"Some people see something wrong and walk away," Umbehr said. "To me, I cannot not get involved."
Getting involved meant jeopardizing his livelihood, facing the ire of a tiny community where roots run deep and memories run long, and withstanding an intense six-year journey to the Supreme Court to determine whether the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech protected independent contractors who criticized government officials.
"We've been fighting for so long," he once told his wife, Eileen, "that we sleep with our swords."
The opening salvos had little to do with Umbehr's First Amendment rights. Within weeks after he started hauling the county's trash, the county commissioners denied him access to the county landfill, saying that it would fill too quickly and that Umbehr had agreed to develop his own landfill. Umbehr challenged their decision, won binding arbitration and, when the county ignored the ruling, twice won in district court.
When the county gave him access - and also raised the landfill rates -- Umbehr sued and settled out-of-court.
He began attending government meetings and, in 1989, he started writing columns critical of local government for the weekly newspaper, the Signal-Enterprise. He visited a nearby law school library where a librarian showed him how to do legal research. He learned about the state's open meetings and open records acts, about libel and slander, about quotes and corroboration.
He became an indefatigable -- some would say intractable -- watchdog whose questions and comments would extend evening meetings well into the early morning hours.
"Anyone will tell you, I'm just a trash man," Umbehr says with a boyish, self-effacing, aw-shucks …