When Legal Director Teresa Nelson joined the ACLU of Minnesota as a volunteer law clerk in 1995, the organization operated on a shoestring. Nearly three decades later, the ACLU-MN remains her dream job.

Teresa and he father the day she graduated from law school. 

When Legal Director Teresa Nelson joined the ACLU of Minnesota as a volunteer law clerk in 1995, the organization operated on a shoestring. 

There were only three full-time people on staff, crammed into a dank building in Minneapolis. Nelson quickly moved from law clerk to part-timer to legal counsel and then legal director. 

Nearly three decades later, the ACLU-MN remains her dream job. 

“There are so many different issues within the idea of protecting constitutional rights that you don’t have to choose just one,” she said. “Free speech is important and so is equal protection, protecting the rights of people of color and LGBTQ+ people. We do all of that.” 

During Nelson’s tenure, the ACLU-MN has grown exponentially. Following Donald Trump’s election, the staff more than doubled in size.  

“It was an exciting challenge to figure out how to grow in a sustainable way and maintain our absolute commitment to defending and promoting civil liberties,” Nelson said. “It was great to be able to build our resources and extend our reach. Adding five people to the legal staff since the 2016 election has given us freedom to take more cases.” 

One of the many cases that remains memorable to Nelson is a wrongful death lawsuit after Duluth police killed David Croud, a Native American man with four young children, in 2005. She worked closely with former ACLU-MN Board Member and litigation legend Al Goins.  

“David was intoxicated, he was shadow boxing with himself, he wasn’t doing anything,” Nelson said. “He just wanted the police to leave him alone. It was completely unnecessary to arrest him, much less tase and brutalize him. We were the only ones really willing to push to get justice for David at the time.” 

Nelson also recalls how the ACLU-MN protected the right to protest at the 2008 RNC convention in Saint Paul, which included community outreach to groups planning protests, securing permits to march, recruiting attorneys, and training observers. 

Right before the march, then-Ramsey County Sheriff Fletcher raided the protest center and seized books, literature, buttons, banners, signs, and stickers. The ACLU-MN sued and won a temporary restraining order and a settlement for the victims in Demuth v. Fletcher. The ACLU-MN also helped get “Democracy Now!” reporters including Amy Goodman released from jail for covering the protests.  

Looking ahead, Nelson hopes to see a world that approaches public safety by addressing the root causes of crime, rather than relying on punitive measures like enforcement and incarceration. 

“People are unhoused, they’re living in encampments. Let’s figure out a way to house them instead of sweeping them with bulldozers and police. People are committing acts of violence. What caused that violence? Let's figure out a better way to address what are clearly societal failures instead of enforcing laws against the most vulnerable.”