ACLU Clients Will not be Punished for Using First Amendment Rights at Lincoln Academy Assembly

March 02, 2015

KANSAS CITY, MO  – The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri the ACLU secured a win for its Lincoln College Preparatory Academy clients and has dismissed the civil rights lawsuit that was filed against the Kansas City School District alleging that the District violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

On Nov. 20 at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, 14 students stood silently in the back of the auditorium and held their hands up in a sign of surrender in order to send a message to Governor Nixon. They were immediately ushered out of the auditorium, sent home and threatened with a 10-day suspension. The students were eventually told their punishment would be to serve Saturday detention and that they would have a permanent mark on their school record related to their actions.

“We are pleased that Lincoln Academy administrators agreed to withdraw the discipline of the students and remove any mention of it from their permanent records,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter a school building.”

“The students found a way to send a respectful message they knew could be unpopular with the Governor or their school,” said Jeffrey Mittman, the ACLU of Missouri’s executive director. “The ACLU is most needed at times like this because it is easy for those in positions of authority to go after messages of dissent.”

Recorders of Deeds Must Issue Marriage Licenses to Those Unable to Appear in Person

February 26, 2015

Today United States District Judge Brian C. Wimes ordered that any person 18 years of age or older, who is unable to physically travel to a Missouri Recorder of Deeds office because of military service, disability or imprisonment can now obtain a marriage license. This action removes an artificial barrier in a Missouri statute that required both parties appear before a recorder of deeds to obtain a marriage license.

After several couples were unable to obtain marriage licenses because one partner could not appear in person, the ACLU sued four individual recorders and won. But, recorders in Missouri’s other counties still would not issue marriage licenses, so when Heidi Kennard was denied a license in Callaway County because her fiancé was incarcerated, the ACLU of Missouri decided to file a class action lawsuit against all Missouri recorders of deeds to protect the right to marry for everyone who cannot appear before a recorder in person.

“This judgment settles the matter once and for all,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “It removes an arbitrary governmental intrusion, which prevented couples from publicly expressing their commitment to each other through marriage.”

“It’s the ACLU’s job to remove artificial governmental barriers that prevent couples from the freedom to marry,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.  “Today’s decision preserves the fundamental right to marriage in all the counties, and brings statewide effect to our earlier victories.” 

Grr ... Alabama Beats Missouri

February 13, 2015

Blog post by Jeffrey Mittman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri

On Monday, Alabama beat Missouri to become the 37th state with the freedom to marry.

Sure, Alabama leap-frogged Missouri down the aisle, but our marriage victories are bringing us ever closer to the day when gay and lesbian couples throughout the entire state of Missouri will be able to marry.
It was just one year ago when we announced our marriage recognition case, Barrier v. Vasterling. What a year it’s been for marriage equality.

  • Our October win in Barrier paved the way for a myriad of agencies to offer benefits to all legally married couples. The Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan opened coverage to same-sex spouses of Missouri employees, retirees and family members. The Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs now recognize the marriages of all Missourians, regardless of their sexual orientation, for all purposes of federal law. This gives all married couples and their families the security and benefits they deserve.
  • Thanks in part to our win in Lawson v. Jackson County, same-sex couples can now obtain marriage licenses in some parts of the state. We have more work to do before the rest of the state follows this lead. The state of Missouri is appealing our decision and arguments will be heard, along with marriage cases from Arkansas and South Dakota, before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in mid-May.
  • The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in four freedom-to-marry cases, two of which will be represented by the national ACLU in April. It is our hope that these cases will resolve the marriage debate once and for all. The Court could decide as early as June. 

As you can tell, there are many roads to marriage and our final destination is within reach. Nearly 72 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state with the freedom to marry!

The fight is not over, but rest assured that we are doing our best to make sure Missouri becomes one of those states in the very near future. To keep abreast of the rapidly changing landscape, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Category: LGBT Rights

ACLU Sues Over Wellston’s Refusal to Respond to Request for Public Records

February 12, 2015

ST. LOUIS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has filed a Sunshine Law suit against the City of Wellston because the City has failed to respond to the ACLU’s requests for documents pertaining to allegations that city officials have interfered with Wellston Police Department officers doing their jobs.

“For more than a month, we have been asking for public records that will shine light on claims that city officials are retaliating against police officers for investigating domestic violence crimes involving an official’s family member,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Our requests for records have been ignored.”

“The Sunshine Law ensures that the government is accountable to the public. Missourians have a right to know what our officials are doing,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Simply ignoring a Sunshine Law request compels the ACLU to go to court to protect ‘government of the people.’”

The ACLU’s petition, exhibit 1 and exhibit 2 can be found on the ACLU of Missouri website.

Grain Valley Settles Flashing Headlights Lawsuit

January 23, 2015

The Grain Valley Police Department will no longer issue tickets to drivers who flash their headlights to communicate with other drivers. The city of Grain Valley repealed this portion of its ordinance that individuals be ticketed for warning of speed-traps after the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 3 on behalf of Jerry L. Jarman, Jr. The lawsuit was dismissed today after the parties reached a settlement.

While driving in late August 2014 in Grain Valley, a suburb of Kansas City, Jarman observed a speed-trap and flashed his headlights to communicate with other drivers that they should proceed with caution. He was pulled over by a Grain Valley police officer and issued a citation for allegedly “interfering with radar” by flashing headlights at oncoming drivers.

In April 2014, the ACLU of Missouri secured a permanent injunction from U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey against the City of Ellisville, a suburb of St. Louis, for citing drivers who flashed their headlights to warn other drivers of radar ahead.

“We are pleased that Grain Valley agrees that drivers should not be penalized for warning others to drive cautiously,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Flashing headlights is a readily understood way of communicating a message and is protected by the First Amendment.”

Court documents can be found on the legal dockets page of the ACLU of Missouri’s website. As part of the settlement, Grain Valley paid damages to Jarman, as well as his attorneys’ fees and costs.

St. Louis County Grand Juror Challenges Lifetime Gag Order

January 05, 2015

ST. LOUIS – Grand Juror Doe, who served on the grand jury which investigated the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, is suing Robert McCulloch, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County. Doe would like to talk about the experience of serving on a grand jury, the evidence presented and the investigation in a way that could contribute to the public dialogue concerning race relations.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is representing Grand Juror Doe because, without permission from a court, it is a crime for grand jurors to discuss their service. McCulloch is named as a defendant since he would be the person to bring charges against Doe.

“The Supreme Court has said that grand jury secrecy must be weighed against the juror’s First Amendment rights on a case-by-case basis,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The rules of secrecy must yield because this is a highly unusual circumstance. The First Amendment prevents the state from imposing a life-time gag order in cases where the prosecuting attorney has purported to be transparent.”

“Grand Juror Doe’s perspective can and should help inform a way forward here in Missouri,” says Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The ACLU will fight to allow this important voice to be heard by the public and lawmakers so that we can begin the healing process that can only result from fact-based reforms.”

Cooperating attorneys on this case are Eric Sowers, Ferne Wolf and Joshua Pierson, from Sowers & Wolf Attorneys at Law. A copy of the complaint can be found on the ACLU of Missouri website.

ACLU Asks Court to Halt Punishment of Student who Participated in a Silent Protest

December 22, 2014

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Kansas City School District, because the district violated a student’s First Amendment rights. The suit asks the court to stop punishing the student for participating in a protest.

When Governor Nixon began speaking during an assembly on Nov. 20 at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, 14 students stood and held their hands up in a sign of surrender. They were immediately ushered out of the auditorium, sent home and threatened with a 10-day suspension. This punishment was changed to a Saturday School detention.

“This student was exercising her constitutional rights by expressing the message that she stood in solidarity with other protesters across Missouri and the country after the death of Michael Brown,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The school should be proud to have taught their students to be confident in their right to express themselves to the Governor.”

“School administrators cannot punish students for communications they think will bring negative attention to the school,” explained Sarah Rossi, the ACLU of Missouri’s director of advocacy and policy. “The First Amendment does not permit that.”

ACLU Sues Ferguson-Florissant School District

December 18, 2014

The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit against Missouri's Ferguson-Florissant School District, charging the district's electoral system is locking African-Americans out of the political process.

The case, brought on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and African-American residents, is challenging the district’s at-large system used to elect school board members. The at-large system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting African-American voting strength, the complaint charges.

African-Americans constitute a minority of the district’s voting age population, and under the at-large system they are systematically unable to elect candidates of their choice. The suit seeks to allow voters to cast a ballot for an individual school board member who resides in their district and better represents the community.

“The current system locks out African-American voters,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “It dilutes the voting power of the African-American community and severely undermines their voice in the political process.”

The Ferguson-Florissant School District has a history fraught with discrimination against African-American citizens. The district, which spans several municipalities, was created by a 1975 desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students. Yet, 40 years later, there is just one African-American member on the seven-member board in a district where African-Americans constitute 77 percent of the student body.

This systemic lack of representation is why plaintiff Redditt Hudson got involved in this case. He is a former St. Louis police officer who lives in Florissant with his wife and two daughters, both of whom are students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

“We’ve seen African-Americans excluded from making decisions that affect our children,” said Hudson, who works for the NAACP. “We need to be able to advocate for an education that will put our kids first and not political agendas.”

The case, Missouri NAACP v. Ferguson-Florissant School District was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The complaint can be found on the ACLU of Missouri website at www.aclu-mo.org/voting-rights-lawsuit.

“It is a core American value that everyone has the right to cast a vote that counts,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “This lawsuit is a positive step toward addressing racial inequities in our education system that will affect not only Ferguson, but all of Missouri.”

ACLU Files Suit on Behalf of Reporter Who Was Arrested in Ferguson

December 16, 2014

ST. LOUIS  – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a civil rights action against St. Louis County and police officer James Vollmer for violating the constitutional rights of Gerald “Trey” Yingst, a News2Share reporter and producer. He is seeking judgment against the County for its failure to train and supervise Officer Vollmer and for defamation.

On Nov. 22, Yingst was arrested in Ferguson. Police claimed he was standing in the street and failed to disperse after being asked by law enforcement to do so. However, several eye-witness accounts and video recordings of the incident show that Yingst was standing on the sidewalk exercising his First Amendment right to record police at the time of his arrest. This occurred one day after the ACLU of Missouri had secured court orders against the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the County of St. Louis and the City of Ferguson requiring that the police respect the First Amendment rights of journalists.

“It is troubling that the First Amendment rights of the media continued to be trampled despite multiple court orders prohibiting such government overreach,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.  

“Members of the press should be treated with respect, not harassed and arrested for doing their jobs,” said Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Missouri executive director. “After all, the media serve as our eyes on the ground and we all depend on them to have unfettered access to events as they unfold in our communities.” 

 In a related case, Abdullah v. County of St. Louis, et al., a federal court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting law enforcement from arresting those standing on sidewalks. Related documents and more information for both cases are on the ACLU of Missouri website.  Videos of Yingst getting arrested can be found at: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/55733160 (at 35:40 mark) and http://m.ustream.tv/recorded/55733929?rmalang=en_US (at 1:15 mark).

Missouri to Celebrate International Human Rights Day by Executing Inmate with Intellectual Disability

December 09, 2014

by Sarah Rossi, Director of Advocacy and Policy

December 10th is International Human Rights Day, a day that recognizes globally the human rights to which we are all entitled. It is a call for peace, a call for cooperation, a call for freedom, equality and dignity. It is also a call to end violence, especially violence by governments against their people. On December 10th, when all across the world there will be events to celebrate International Human Rights Day, the state of Missouri will put to death by lethal injection an inmate with intellectual disabilities.

The arguments against the death penalty are well known.

It kills innocent people: since 1973, nearly 150 people have been released from death row after their innocence was proven.It is too costly: special death row housing and legal fees cost state governments exponentially more than life sentences.Its application is unfair: wealthy people are more likely to escape a death sentence; people of color are far more likely to be sentenced to death especially if the victim is white.It is not a deterrent: states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.

But most importantly, the argument against the death penalty for Paul Goodwin is that in 2001 the Supreme Court of the United States banned the execution of individuals who are mentally disabled.

Paul Goodwin was born into a family plagued by alcohol and violence. He was raised by an abusive father, he acted as a protector to his mother and he struggled through most of his early life. Those who knew Paul could see that he was clearly affected by intellectual disabilities – he could not excel at the same rate as other kids. He was held back, provided special services and scored very low on IQ tests. When he was 13 years old his IQ was 72, a number well within the range for sub-average intellectual function. By all accounts, Paul was seen as “simple-minded,” “slow,” and never grew intellectually past childhood.

At the age of 48, Paul has spent the last 15 years of his life in prison and is still seen as a “simple-minded kid” who exhibits childish and immature behavior. Like a child, he does not comprehend the consequences of his actions and is unable to help his defense attorneys articulate his case. Paul is not innocent of his crime, but proponents of the death penalty will cite his guilt as the sole reason for his death sentence, completely disregarding his mental capacity.

No person should be put to death at the hands of government, but Missouri continues to administer this inhumane punishment with no regard for the flaws in the system or the directives of this country’s highest court. A person with intellectual disabilities should not be lethally injected, let alone lethally injected on a day when the world is focused on human rights and making a global call for mercy. The state of Missouri should heed that call.