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Not for civil liberties

SLO's chapter of the ACLU isn't up to par



Two years ago, I went to a picnic in SLO thrown by the then-new local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. I attended with my wife and a young journalist friend who was interested in civil liberties. I asked him to come.

I introduced my wife and friend to Stew Jenkins, the lawyer who is the godfather of the local ACLU. He shook Gayle's hand, then rebuffed my compatriot, saying, "I won't shake your hand because you're a snot."

I was stunned. Here was the local head honcho of an important American institution petulantly placing personal feelings above the interests of the organization he represents.

True, he and my young colleague had a history, a nasty one, but even so. Sometimes you just have to act like a grownup, especially if you want to encourage people to get on board with your organization.

But getting people on board with the ACLU is not atop Jenkins' list of concerns, as I found out during a dispiriting plod through the local group's so-called activities. Jenkins' picnic snub was a small straw, but it broke my back; after that picnic I stopped my frustrating months-long effort to inject energy into the local chapter. Events since have borne out the wisdom of my decision.

More on that later. First, there are more egregious behaviors coming from those who run the local chapter. To wit: local voter suppression, in direct contradiction of the national ACLU's effort and hostility from Jenkins and his minions toward freedom of expression.

That behavior reached a nadir after the June election, when Jenkins tried to stop votes from being tallied in a county supervisor election, in a ghastly local replay of Bush v. Gore.

That's right—the head of the local ACLU was engaged in de facto voter suppression at a time when the national ACLU is pushing hard to help disenfranchised voters cast a ballot.

So, consider this column an apology, a correction, if you will, of a column I wrote for New Times two years back when I fairly gushed about the appearance of an ACLU chapter in SLO County ("Liberty and justice," July 27, 2016). They say journalists never admit mistakes, but I'm here to tell you I was way off with that enthusiasm.

Let's talk first about stopping political opponents from voting.

Here is what the ACLU nationally says about voter suppression:

"Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans ... to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot."

"The ACLU is engaged in advocacy and litigation across the country to get rid of this harmful voter suppression."

Here is what the ACLU's local honcho did in June:

As vote counting neared its end, he went to court to stop ballots from being tallied. Apparently, he thought his client, Lynn Compton's, thin lead would disappear. His arguments were arcane and spurned by the court. But the salient point here is that Jenkins tried to use the law to keep citizens from voting.

The right to vote is not the only basic liberty Jenkins has gone after. He has sent threatening letters demanding retractions of online comments he considers injurious to his clients. I have seen two of these and they are all the more appalling because the client in question calls itself a news outlet: the disgraceful and disgraced CalCoastNews, which, someone asserted, online, was "not a news site."

The irony is probably lost on Jenkins, but credible media, dedicated as they are to freedom of expression, do not try to shut people up. If someone rips them, they take it. (I speak from experience; I expect venom in response to this; I won't sue: It comes with the territory). As journalist David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, "suing over opinions is deeply censorious and corrosive of free speech."

So that's what your local ACLU godfather has been doing, along with promoting the CalCoastNews candidate for SLO City Council, T. Keith Gurnee.

Here is what he hasn't been doing, as near as I can tell: trying to make the local chapter stronger by reaching out to the hundreds of ACLU members in this county.

My own disheartening slog through the local chapter's morass illustrates that. To telescope a dreary story, I heard about the ACLU, tried to join, was told by everyone to contact Jenkins, tried to, left a message, waited months for a response, and, finally, got invited to a meeting.

The get-together was disquieting. There were Karen Velie of CalCoastNews, her lawyer Jenkins, Grover Beach City Councilwoman Debbie Peterson, and a few others. I don't know how these people got on the board, but I assume Jenkins, who most definitely runs this show, hand-picked them. They share not so much a concern for the Bill of Rights but rather an activist, right-wing local political philosophy rooted in love for CalCoastNews and hatred for various local politicians and civil servants.

Nevertheless, I tried to follow my own advice about being well-behaved if you find yourself breaking bread with people you don't respect. After all, maybe there was common ground. We all want civil liberties restored, right?

And it went fine, manners-wise. But it quickly became clear that this tepid group wasn't doing much.

Jenkins balked at calling a countywide meeting of ACLU card-holders, for example. He may have finally done that this spring, but I couldn't verify it.

There was talk of helping to tweak a local city ordinance, and mumbling about looking into conditions at the county jail, but no action. (Meanwhile, The Tribune's Matt Fountain blew open the deaths-in-county-jail story with his award-winning reporting).

I've heard that Jenkins lectures now and then, and of course he throws a mean picnic (unless you're a snot).

But as for anything else, it's pretty much meh.

Where, for example, was the local ACLU when the SLO Women's March brought the community together in June to oppose the separation of children from their mothers at the border? It's a cause the national ACLU is deeply involved in.

Where is it on other issues? Beats me, and anyone else who'd like to know. I've been told the local chapter isn't supposed to take political positions, but that makes no sense if the national group has taken a stance.

To be fair, there are members of the local chapter who are on the level and have spent a lifetime fighting for civil liberties. They're ill-served by the control of this chapter by Jenkins and his partisan posse.

There is good news for those who want to fight the good fight. Other groups are waging the battles that I had hoped the ACLU would take on. Most notable is the Women's March. Check them out.

Bob Cuddy is a snotty, retired, award-winning journalist who lives in Arroyo Grande. He has written for the American Civil Liberties Union. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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