ACLU Issues Report On Obama Administration's Civil Liberties Record

January 20, 2010

First Year Saw Civil Rights Advances And End Of Torture But Continuation Of Overbroad Domestic Surveillance Practices

NEW YORK - The Obama administration's record on restoring civil liberties during its first year in office is mixed, according to a new report analyzing the administration's performance released today by the American Civil Liberties Union. Of a set of 145 detailed recommendations the ACLU made to the new president upon his election, the administration has acted on just over one-third of them.

"Starting with bold executive orders to end torture and close the prison at Guantánamo, and continuing with positive actions in areas like open government and civil rights, the Obama administration has made some significant strides toward restoring civil liberties and the rule of law," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "But in other areas, the administration has fallen short by allowing some of the Bush administration's most troublesome practices to continue and by failing to take steps that would restore some very fundamental rights and values to American life."

The administration's record on the ACLU's highest priority recommendations - those it asked President Obama to take on his first day in office - is uneven. Despite the president's executive order to close the notorious prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it remains open, detainees remain there without charge or trial and the flawed military commission system is still being used. And while the president ordered an end to torture and the Justice Department has initiated a very limited inquiry into detainee abuse, the president has shown little appetite for encouraging a comprehensive torture investigation that would include high level officials from the Bush administration. The Obama administration has also retained its authority to engage in extraordinary renditions.

On the ACLU's other top priorities - those it asked President Obama to act on within his first 100 days - the administration's record is weak. On issues like spying on Americans, monitoring of activists, terrorism watchlists, the Real ID Act and DNA databases, the administration has carried out none of the ACLU's recommendations.

"Our hope a year ago was that the Obama administration would restore our nation's long tradition of respect for privacy and the rule of law by rolling back the privacy-invading domestic security policies enacted by the Bush administration," Romero said. "Unfortunately, many of those policies have not been reversed, and we now run the risk of seeing them become a permanent part of American life."

On the issues of civil rights, open government, freedom of speech and reproductive freedom, the administration has fared much better, as it has acted on about half of the ACLU's recommendations.

"In the face of enormous domestic and international challenges that naturally occupied much of President Obama's attention, the administration has managed to initiate a lot of positive actions that deserve commendation and which can help put America on a path toward regaining its standing as a global leader in freedom and equality," said Romero. "But it is clear after one year that the administration has a lot more work to do, and the ACLU will continue to vigorously fight for and support such action."

A copy of the ACLU's analysis of the Obama administration's record on restoring civil liberties, including a chart showing which of the ACLU's recommendations the administration acted upon, is available online at: www.aclu.org/america-unrestored

Library of Congress Wrongly Fires Former Gitmo Lawyer

December 10, 2009

ACLU Says Congressional Research Service Violated First Amendment When It Fired Col. Morris Davis

NEW YORK -The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on behalf of Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Guantánamo military commissions, who was terminated from his job at CRS because of opinion pieces he wrote about the Guantánamo military commissions system that ran in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post on November 11, 2009. The ACLU's letter argues that CRS violated the First Amendment when it fired Davis for speaking as a private citizen about matters having nothing to do with his job there, and that CRS must reinstate Davis to his position in order to avoid litigation.

"The First Amendment protects Col. Davis's right to speak and write as a private citizen about issues on which he has personal knowledge," said Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "Col. Davis didn't give up his right to express his opinions and first-hand knowledge about a matter of such public importance when he left the military commissions system and went to work at CRS."

In October 2007, Davis resigned from his position in the military commissions because of his belief that the system was fundamentally flawed. He became a vocal critic of the commissions, writing articles, giving speeches and testifying before Congress. In December 2008, Davis began working as the Assistant Director of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division at CRS, a department within the Library of Congress that provides experts to assist members of Congress and committee staff in the legislative process. Davis's work at CRS is not related to, and his division has no responsibilities for, anything having to do with the military commissions.

"CRS does very important work and I'm proud of what I contribute to that," said Davis. "But my service there does not preclude me from speaking about matters of great public importance about which I have personal expertise that is extremely valuable to the ongoing debate over how to prosecute terrorism suspects."

On November 11, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece written by Davis expressing views abut the military commissions similar to those he had expressed publicly prior to working at CRS. The Washington Post also published a letter to the editor that day written by Davis on the same subject. Both pieces were written by Davis in his personal capacity, made clear that he was writing as a private individual and former chief prosecutor of the military commissions and made no mention of CRS. He wrote the pieces on his home computer during non-work hours.

Immediately after the op-ed and the letter were published, Davis received a threatening email from his supervisor regarding the pieces and questioning Davis's ability to continue serving as Assistant Director, despite previous positive feedback about his work from the same supervisor. In meetings that followed, Davis's supervisor informed him that as a result of the pieces his employment would be terminated.

According to the ACLU's letter, the "decision to terminate Col. Davis for writing the op-ed and letter to the editor is a clear violation of Col. Davis's First Amendment and due process rights. The Supreme Court has long made clear that public employees such as Col. Davis are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern...There can be no dispute that the subject matter of Col. Davis's speech - the military commissions and the prosecution of suspected terrorists - is a matter of immense public concern. These issues are the subject of a nationwide, highly contentious, and very public debate that has been dominating the news and our government's attention."

"The public has a great interest in hearing from Col. Davis about Guantánamo and the military commissions because of his unique expertise as the former chief prosecutor there," said Fine. "There is no reason his employment at CRS should prevent the public from hearing those views."

The full text of the ACLU's letter is available online at: www.aclu.org/free-speech/letter-library-congress-asking-reinstatement-colonel-morris-davis

Honk for Peace charges dropped

May 12, 2009

The City of Burnsville has dropped charges against a woman who honked in support of protesters who were holding signs along a public road.

The ACLU of Minnesota represented Barbara Gilland, saying that the issuing of the citation violated Ms Gilland's First Amendment rights. The City of Burnsville agreed to drop the charges and to no longer issue citations for improper use of horn when using it to express freedom of speech. except when necessary to preserve public safety. The City also agreed to issue a directive to officers and update its Policies and Procedures to prevent free speech violations in the future.

Ms Gilland was represented by ACLU volutneer attorney Howard Bass of Bass Law Firm.

The role of the ACLU

April 01, 2009

The job of the American Civil Liberties Union is to protect and defend the rights contained in the constitution. This week the ACLU commented on the plan by the City of St. Paul to ban 10 individuals from the West Side for a period of unknown time this spring (the so-called Cinco d Mayo banning). We felt that the ban is overbroad, vague, and violated the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

However, our positions are not always popular. Here is one response we received:

"I apologize if this sounds dis-jointed, but I don't even know where to start. There is a part of being liberal, and there is a part of being a responsible citizen.

How on earth could you be fighting for the rights of gang members?

Do you have any-I mean-ANY understanding, of what the police know about these non-citizens? They have no rights to go around and enforce their own justice. And if you think they do-then lets set them up in homes and apartments around YOUR home. And once they entice your children in to joining-we will see how you feel about their "rights". When is the ACLU going to get it.

When the ACLU stoops to the level of supporting gangs, you make it really hard for liberal Americans to support the ACLU. How on earth can you be so stupid to defend this. "

It is upsetting to think that the rights that all good people have are also the rights that all bad people must be allowed to have as well. Gangs are bad and nobody wants to live with gang violence and crime.

We believe that, like all crime and terrorism, we cannot abandon the notions of fairness and justice that defines us as Americans in order to achieve our goals in the way that we think is the most expedient. This is a band-aid solution and we think that the City should focus on addressing the root societal problems that lead young men to join gangs in the first place.

We believe that people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence is the foundation of our criminal justice system. When we allow the government to secretly create a scoring system in order to send individuals to jail the rights of all of us are at risk.

Many things about this situation are troubling. In no particular order they are:

  1. The city collected secret information on this group of people, in many cases from rival gangs. They have refused to make any of that information public. My concern is that rival gangs could be using the government to eliminate their rivals.
  2. The city proposes to have a civil hearing where they do not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals are members of a gang, or that this gang exists. The government defines a gang, and whether an individual is a member of the gang. The government also decides whether or not crimes committed by people the government believes are gang members can also be charged to everyone they've decided is a gang member.
  3. Because it is a civil trial there is no constitutional requirement that these people be represented by counsel. If they are poor or middle class they almost certainly won't be represented. The consequence of violating this banning is a misdemeanor (90 days in jail).

This is the same kind of thinking that gave us Guantanamo - we can't convict them of a crime so we create a backdoor way to put them in jail because we are "sure" they are guilty.

This is a difficult issue and for that reason we should be reluctant to reach for quick answers. Studies in other states (particularly Pennsylvania) show that using evidence based strategies to address youth crime and violence actually works, couldn't we give that a try.

If these individuals were violent criminals, let us try them in criminal court, and if they are found guilty sentence them to prison for the damage they have done to society. Let us not take the easy way out of this difficult situation.

Read the Star Tribune article for more details about the banning

Minnesota Court Court of Appeals upholds First Amendment rights

February 18, 2009

ACLU of Minnesota applauds Minnesota Court of Appeals reversal of an earlier district court decision which restricted First Amendment rights.

In July 2008 the ACLU filed a friend of the court brief in defense of James Stengrim's First Amendment Rights. Mr. Stengrim was sued by the Middle Snake Tamarac Rivers Watershed District, a local government entity, for expressing an opinion critical of the District's flood control plans. Mr. Stengrim and other land owners opposing the flood control project filed suit against the District in 2002. At that time a settlement agreement was reached and one provision of it forbade the land owners from challenging the project again. Consistent with the agreement, Mr. Stengrim has not filed a legal challenge since, but remains an outspoken critic of the District's handling of the project. When he was sued for violating the settlement agreement, he tried to use Minnesota's anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law which allows defendants to seek the dismissal of any civil suit that seeks to silence lawful speech or action aimed at government action, but the district courts refused to apply that law. So the ACLU filed an amicus brief in Mr. Stengrim's defense when the case was appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Earlier this week Mr. Stengrim was vindicated when the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision which said that the anti-SLAPP law did not apply in the Stengrim case. The ACLU's amicus brief argued that the anti-SLAPP law should protect Mr Stengrim, and that one cannot sign away their first amendment rights.

The court of appeals reversed the district court decision, and said that Mr. Stengrim has the right to use the anti-SLAPP law to defend his First Amendment rights. We applaud the MN Court of Appeals decision.

ACLU protests potential ban on recording meetings

February 17, 2009

A new suggestion by St. Louis County Commissioners would ban private citizens from recording at any board workshops. So, last week the ACLU of Minnesota sent a letter to St. Louis Count Board asking them not to pursue any recording bans. We believe that such a move would not only violate the Minnesota Open Meetings law but also the state and U.S. Constitutional rights to freedom of speech.

The board is considering the ban because recordings that had been made by an attendee at previous meetings were made public and some County Commissioners were criticized for their opposition to the sale of tax forfeited land to local Indian tribes. We hope that the St. Louis Count Commissioner listen to us and do not put the ban into place.

Revealing RNC document leaked

November 21, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union recently came across a revealing "RNC Homeland Security Document". This official document was uncovered by the website Wikileaks, which according to its website "We help you safely get the truth out". This document outlines the planning leading up to the Republican National Convention and how security forces would be working together during the RNC. Many federal, state and local organizations were mentioned in this document, a number of which the ACLU did not know were involved. A number of these agencies are military based, which may directly conflict with Federal law that prohibits the military from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is one of the organizations that is mentioned in the report that is particular cause for concern. NGA provides mapping tools and imagery intelligence that are obtained from the United State's military spy satellites which are controlled by the National Reconnaissance Office. In other words during the RNC, these top spying tools could have been utilized to gather intelligence on the homes of activists and media workers who were a part of the demonstrations. That information could have then been relayed to local officials.

A second agency that was involved in the planning is the Pentagon's Northern Command, NORTHCOM. Having NORTHCOMM at the table, assisting in the planning is troubling because it could mean that the military was involved in the crowd control strategies and dealing with potential civil unrest. According to a report in Army Times, it said that an active military unit has been deployed by NORTHCOM in the United States. This deployment marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment within U.S. Borders.

Furthermore it appears that the FBI may have been using a station faking technology that would allow them to locate an individual through their cell phone. The ACLU is concerned with how this technology is used and if there was proper judicial oversight. In the USA Patriot ACT, this process for obtaining a track was made easier, and could allow for little to no judicial oversight. This tracking via cell phones could have been used during the RNC without the knowledge of even the phone companies.

"These behaviors are a radical departure from separation of civilian law enforcement and military authority, and could, quite possibly, represent a violation of law," said Teresa Nelson, ACLU of Minnesota. The ACLU-MN will continue to investigate and will use their findings in future lawsuits against law enforcement officials.

Federal Judge denies release of 1st Amendment Protected Materials

September 04, 2008

Federal Judge John Tunheim denied the ACLU-MN request to release the literature and educational materials that were illegally seized by police during mass raids on private homes and a gather place the weekend before the RNC. The raids were part of what appears to be a massive government crackdown on free speech during the Republican National Convention.

"Pamphlets and buttons are constitutionally-protected forms of free speech and the police have no business going around confiscating them from innocent people," said Chuck Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU of Minnesota. "It is greatly disturbing if and when the materials are released, it will be too late for their owners to distribute them at the convention."

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of six individuals who own the confiscated material, which includes First Amendment-protected literature, buttons, pamphlets, leaflets and books. None of those individuals have been arrested or charged with any crime. The complaint charges that the materials were seized in an effort to "chill First Amendment rights to distribute literature, to disseminate ideas, to peaceably assemble, and to redress grievances - all protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments" of the Constitution.

"Seizing boxes and boxes of literature is another example of the wide-reaching government assault on free speech throughout the convention," said Samuelson. "This kind of law enforcement abuse of power has no place in a democracy."

The complaint was filed against the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota's Ramsey County, Ramsey County Sheriff Robert Fletcher, three deputies of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department, and unnamed St. Paul and Minneapolis police officers.

Attorneys on the case are Terri Nelson, legal counsel with the ACLU of MN; ACLU volunteer lawyers Al Goins and Rick Petry; and Geneva Finn of the National Lawyers Guild.

 

ACLU Sues St. Paul and Minneapolis For Release Of Educational Materials Seized During Raids

September 04, 2008

ST. PAUL - The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in federal court late last night calling for the release of literature and educational materials that were illegally seized by police during mass raids on private homes and a gather place earlier this week. The raids were part of what appears to be a massive government crackdown on free speech during the Republican National Convention.

"Pamphlets and buttons are constitutionally-protected forms of free speech and the police have no business going around confiscating them from innocent people," said Chuck Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU of Minnesota. "It is greatly disturbing if and when the materials are released, it will be too late for their owners to distribute them at the convention."

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of six individuals who own the confiscated material, which includes First Amendment-protected literature, buttons, pamphlets, leaflets and books. None of those individuals have been arrested or charged with any crime. The complaint charges that the materials were seized in an effort to "chill First Amendment rights to distribute literature, to disseminate ideas, to peaceably assemble, and to redress grievances - all protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments" of the Constitution.

"Seizing boxes and boxes of literature is another example of the wide-reaching government assault on free speech throughout the convention," said Samuelson. "This kind of law enforcement abuse of power has no place in a democracy."

The complaint was filed against the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota's Ramsey County, Ramsey County Sheriff Robert Fletcher, three deputies of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department, and unnamed St. Paul and Minneapolis police officers.

Attorneys on the case are Terri Nelson, legal counsel with the ACLU of MN; ACLU volunteer lawyers Al Goins and Rick Petry; and Geneva Finn of the National Lawyers Guild.

 

At RNC, Arraignments Begin And Arrests Continue

September 04, 2008

RNC Security Worker Among Those Arrested

ST. PAUL - Hundreds of people arrested during a crackdown on free speech in the first days of the Republican National Convention (RNC) were arraigned yesterday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota assembled teams of attorneys to offer legal services at the proceedings.

"There have been hundreds of arrests, and we expect hundreds more, but the number of arrested is not nearly matched by the number of crimes committed. Most of these people are being picked up for doing nothing other than exercising their right to be out in public," said Chuck Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU of Minnesota.

Most of the people arraigned yesterday were charged with misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony charges even though they were swept up in mass arrests while exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and peaceable assembly. Among those arrested were a RNC security worker on his way to work and several journalists attempting to cover the protests outside the convention. Dozens more were arrested yesterday while watching a Rage Against The Machine concert.

Attorneys have objected that bail for those arrested at the RNC is being set unreasonably high- in some cases as much as $2,000. They have also expressed concern about the atmosphere at the law enforcement center where those arrested are being detained. The building is surrounded by eight foot high chain link fence and patrolled by National Guard troops. There are also several teams of police officers in riot gear. Nobody is allowed to enter the complex without ID, and only attorneys are allowed to carry any bags into the building.

"The police presence is scary. The Law Enforcement Center - the jail - looks like something you would find in Baghdad, not in St. Paul," said Samuelson.

The national ACLU has called for an investigation into any civil liberties violations at the RNC. That statement is available online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/36636prs20080904.html