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Liberty and justice

SLO County needs its fledgling chapter of the ACLU to succeed

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The American Civil Liberties Union, the nation's greatest defender of constitutional rights, is closing in on its 100th anniversary. As it does so, the newly rebuilt San Luis Obispo County chapter, which has tiptoed quietly through its first year, enters its second hoping to expand both its work and the number of people who participate in it.

The national ACLU needs only a minimal introduction

It had its origins during World War I, when its adherents joined to fight the repression that was rampant in the United States. Freedom of speech, assembly, to organize, all were under attack, as were other rights.

By 1920 the organization had gelled, and it became the ACLU.

In the nearly 100 years that followed, the ACLU is second to none in protecting our freedoms.

Some of its more famous cases:

• The Scopes trial, defending the right of schools to teach evolution.

• Fighting the infamous Japanese-American internment during World War II.

• Helping the NAACP desegregate America's schools in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

• Defending the free speech rights of a Nazi group that wanted to march in Skokie, Ill., where many Holocaust survivors lived.

Those are the headline cases. But the ACLU works every day to protect rights of citizens. You can't pick up the paper without seeing the ACLU taking a principled stand.

If you haven't noticed, yours truly is a fan, and more than a fan.

I have long been a "card-carrying member" of the ACLU. And I worked for it after 9/11, as lead reporter and writer on a booklet called "Caught in the Backlash." We wrote about Muslims and others who had been profiled and discriminated against after the World Trade Towers attack.

I also formed a group that fought the USA Patriot Act in the San Francisco area, lobbying local governments to oppose it.

So civil liberties are high on my agenda. And when I heard about the local group I was jazzed and wanted to help. I know there are 1,000 ACLU members in the county and it seemed to me that working together we could get a lot done. I learned, however, that many of those people don't even know the new chapter is up and running.

So, I spent much of the winter seeking out its low-key leaders, eventually attending two steering committee meetings.

Before I continue, I want to make clear that I am speaking here for myself. The local ACLU's parent chapter"I call it the Mother Ship"in Los Angeles wants to vet anything that is said in its name. Similarly, local pronouncements must flow through the local guru, attorney Stew Jenkins.

I'm allergic to vetting, except from editors, and sometimes I break out in a rash even with them. So this piece relates merely what I have learned about the local group and my hopes for what it could do in months and years ahead.

The SLO County chapter got started a little more than a year ago, largely due to Jenkins. There had been a chapter here, but it folded 15 or 20 years ago. Neither Jenkins nor anyone else I questioned wants to talk on the record about why it collapsed.

Nor would Jenkins address what triggered his desire to start a new chapter, how he chose his officers, and other organizational questions. Alas, I can't help readers or would-be members with that information.

Here's what I can tell you.

• In its first year, the local ACLU chapter's highest-profile action was a "true gender conference" at Cal Poly in October, at which it explored issues about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) communities and their struggles and successes in the larger culture.

• The chapter muted an ordinance proposed by Grover Beach that would have harmed the homeless.

• It also set up a priority list of concerns: LGBT, the homeless, the criminal justice system, and government transparency.

• It is working on presentations for Constitution Day, Sept. 17, to aid in teaching about the Constitution in local schools.

That's not a bad checklist for a fledgling outfit, especially when you consider that a mere handful of people have made this happen.

The group did have one public mini-scandal online, when the names of its board of directors became known. Several are connected with CalCoastNews, the local "news" website that in the view of many, including me, has committed sins against ACLU principles, to wit seeking to stifle freedom of expression and invading privacy. CalCoastNews reporter/editor/publisher Karen Velie is on the board of directors, as are a couple of her lawyers, including Jenkins.

This alarmed me, but when I asked them about it, Velie and Jenkins assured me that they were committed to ACLU principles, and we agreed to leave our other disagreements outside and work together to promote civil liberties.

As it tromps into its second year, I feel the local chapter could do more, and steering committee members seem to agree. My exhortation to the chapter has been outreach. If there are 1,000 ACLU members hereabouts, let's get them involved.

This is in keeping with the national ACLU's wishes. A recent mailer of theirs says the organization "runs vigorous media outreach, public education, and grassroots organizing campaigns to inform and mobilize people about ways to strengthen and expand individual liberty in America."

My own "irrational exuberance" (thank you, Ben Bernanke, for the phrase) about the virtues of outreach stems from my own success with it when fighting the Patriot Act. A handful of people can accomplish a hell of a lot, I learned, and their enthusiasm is catching.

The local chapter has tentatively scheduled a public meeting at the SLO Library, probably in August. There, Jenkins can explain what the chapter can do and perhaps talk about structure, including how to elect officers and draw in new members and decision makers.

I can tell you up front that the chapter is looking for people to monitor local governments for possible violations of civil liberties, as it did in Grover Beach.

That's in keeping with its general approach of monitoring and educating. The local chapter cannot be overtly activist, as some reform groups are.

Thus, for example, an aggrieved local ACLU member cannot charge into a classroom where the teacher is dissing Darwin and shout, "Hand over that creationism textbook, you fiend! This is a science classroom, not a church. Here," (reaching into a rucksack), "take this copy of Origin of Species!"

But it can report to the Mother Ship that someone is trying to teach religion in the public schools, and wait to see whether the MS wants to litigate. Meantime, local chapter members can go as private individuals to the school board and kvetch, and maybe educate a few people.

When we think of the ACLU, we generally think of their efforts on the Great Issues of the day. Currently the high-profile cases are LGBT, but there are and always have been others.

All of them start somewhere, in some little burg like Dayton, Tenn., where the Scopes "monkey trial" began.

We have no shortage of threats to freedom and civil liberties hereabouts. Crosses are burned in Arroyo Grande; nooses pop up at Cal Poly; a South County teacher tries to equate evolution with creationism.

It's on us to be vigilant, especially in this time when racism, intolerance, and religious persecution seem to be taking hold, and so many Americans and their leaders regard the Constitution and Bill of Rights as outdated relics of a rosier period in U.S. history. The right to speak and assemble, due process, the right to confront your accuser, and the right to privacy are all becoming endangered species.

Keep an eye out for that general meeting. And, if you are so inclined, come on down and join the good fight.

Bob Cuddy lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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