ACLU Comments on Officer Darren Wilson Grand Jury Decision

November 24, 2014

The grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on charges in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown. The following is reaction from Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri:

“The grand jury’s decision does not negate the fact that Michael Brown’s tragic death is part of an alarming national trend of officers using excessive force against people of color, often during routine encounters. Yet in most cases, the officers and police departments are not held accountable,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "While many officers carry out their jobs with respect for the communities they serve, we must confront the profound disconnect and disrespect that many communities of color experience with their local law enforcement. 

“The ACLU will continue to fight for racial justice. We must end the prevailing policing paradigm where police departments are more like occupying forces, imposing their will to control communities. This ‘us’ versus ‘them’ policing antagonizes communities by casting a blanket of suspicion over entire neighborhoods, often under the guise of preventing crime.

“To build trust, we need a democratic system of policing where our communities have an equal say in the way their neighborhoods are policed. Collaboration, transparency and communication between police and communities around the shared goals of equality, fairness and public safety is the path forward.”

ACLU Sends Lincoln College Preparatory Academy Warning About Infringing on Students' Rights

November 24, 2014

KANSAS CITY, MO  – The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sent a letter advising Lincoln College Preparatory Academy to not punish students who participated in a silent protest on Nov. 20.

According to news stories, 12 students were given a Saturday detention for standing and holding their hands up in a sign of surrender when Governor Nixon gave a speech at their school.

“Instead of punishing students, Lincoln College Prep should applaud the students who exercised their free speech in such a respectful, peaceful and mature manner,” said Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the ACLU of Missouri. “It took courage for them to send a message to Gov. Nixon, their teachers and classmates.”  

“The school’s action to punish students violates the First Amendment,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Immediate steps must be taken to correct their wrong-doing.”

“The ACLU of Missouri is paying attention to First Amendment rights not just in the streets of Ferguson, but in schools as well,” explains Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “To paraphrase the Supreme Court, it is our right to speak freely and promote diversity of ideas which sets us apart from totalitarian regimes.”

The ACLU of Missouri is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that defends and expands the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Missourians guaranteed under the United States and Missouri Constitutions, through its litigation, legislative and public education programs. It is an affiliate of the national ACLU.

ACLU Files Suit Against Ozark Fire District for Denying Spousal Benefits

November 24, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, MO  – American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert sent a letter Oct. 8 to Todd A. Johnson of the Ozark Fire District informing him that the district is required to offer spousal benefits to its married employees, regardless of their sexual orientation. Despite state and federal court rulings striking down the 2004 Missouri Constitutional amendment that bans marriage between same-sex couples, the Ozark Fire District refuses to offer equal benefits to same-sex spouses, so today the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit on behalf of Andrea “Andi” Mooneyham against the Ozark Fire Protection District.

“After the court’s decision in Barrier v. Vasterling, Missouri law no longer allows government entities to ignore marriages,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Captain Mooneyham puts her life on the line at work and should receive the same benefits to other married firefighters and their families.”  

Category: LGBT Rights

ACLU Statement Regarding the Nov. 22 Arrest of Reporter in Ferguson

November 23, 2014

ST. LOUIS – The ACLU of Missouri is reviewing information regarding the Nov. 22 arrest of Trey Yingst, a News2Share reporter and producer, in Ferguson, Missouri. According to the St. Louis County Police Department, Mr. Yingst was arrested for allegedly standing in the street and failing to disperse after being asked by law enforcement to do so. However, several eye-witness accounts and video recordings of the incident suggest that Mr. Yingst was standing on the sidewalk exercising his First Amendment right to record police at the time of his arrest and it is unclear what legal authority police officers would have had to order him to disperse.

“We are deeply troubled that the First Amendment rights of the media are still being violated in spite of the recent court order we secured against such action by the County of St. Louis,” said Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Missouri executive director. “We will continue to monitor the situation and if necessary swiftly pursue aggressive action to ensure that unlawful interference with the press comes to an end.”

“Police are not allowed to threaten to arrest or order individuals to move who are peaceably standing, marching or assembling on public sidewalks in Ferguson. Missouri law enforcement may only ask those assembled on the street or sidewalk to disperse if there are six or more people gathered for an unlawful purpose or if a riot is taking place,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Police have an obligation to protect First Amendment rights, not violate them.”

In response to the repeated attacks on protestors’ and the media’s First Amendment rights since August, the ACLU of Missouri filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Hussein v. County of Saint Louis, et al., on Friday, Nov. 14. On Nov. 21 United States District Judge John A. Ross granted three court orders against the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the County of St. Louis and the City of Ferguson. 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.

The ACLU of Missouri is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that defends and expands the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Missourians guaranteed under the United States and Missouri Constitutions, through its litigation, legislative and public education programs. It is an affiliate of the national ACLU.

ACLU Secures Three Court Orders Regarding the Right to Record Police

November 21, 2014

In August attorneys for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the County of St. Louis and the City of Ferguson signed an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri stating that protesters and the media had the right to record law enforcement officers. But, that agreement was disregarded many times in the last few months so the ACLU went back to court last Friday and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. Today United States District Judge John A. Ross granted three court orders against the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the County of St. Louis and the City of Ferguson.

“We are pleased that there are court orders requiring the police to respect the First Amendment rights of journalists,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “With court orders in place, immediate recourse will be available if the freedom of the press is violated.” 

The signed agreement , amended complaint and other documents related to this lawsuit, Mustafa Hussein v. County of Saint Louis, et. al can be found on the ACLU of Missouri website.

Consent Judgment Forbids St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners from Seizing Campaign Materials

November 18, 2014

On Nov. 18, U.S. District Court Judge Rodney W. Sippel entered a consent judgment forbidding the Board of Election Commissioners from confiscating campaign materials.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri had filed a civil rights lawsuit Oct. 30 on behalf of Jennifer Florida, a candidate for St. Louis City Recorder of Deeds.

Florida, a life-long Democrat, was appointed Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis in July when the position became vacant. She decided to run for the position on the Nov. 4 ballot. Because the deadline to participate in the primary election had already passed, Florida ran as an independent Democrat and appeared on the Nov. 4 ballot as an independent. Some election judges seized her campaign materials on Election Day.

“Today’s consent judgment will put an end to election board judges seizing campaign materials because they think the materials are misleading,” says Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. “Those running for political office should never have to worry that the government will censor or seize their campaign materials.”

“It is not the role of government to determine what is ‘appropriate’ political speech. Doing so would allow those in power to control what the public can and cannot hear and that is a recipe for corruption,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. 

ACLU Demands Law Enforcement Agencies Protect Protesters' First Amendment Rights

November 13, 2014

ST. LOUIS  – On Nov. 13, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sent a letter to law enforcement agencies and elected officials in St. Louis County and the state of Missouri to offer guidance for protecting free speech rights once the grand jury announces its decision regarding Officer Darren Wilson. The letter was sent to: Governor Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster, Col. Ronald Replogle, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay, Metropolitan Police Department of St. Louis Col. Samuel Dotson, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

“We want our law enforcement agents to clearly understand that those who protest in public have a right to do so and should never be treated as criminals,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “During times of public crisis, speech often gets loud, and may even become frightening. In America, we have a long tradition of protesters gathering to raise awareness of their opinions. This ensures that our government remains responsive to the will of the people.”

A copy of the letter can be found on the ACLU of Missouri website.

ACLU Sues on Behalf of Journalist

November 10, 2014

On Nov. 10, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Bilgin Şaşmaz, a journalist with the Turkish Anadolu Agency who was on assignment covering the protests in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown.  Şaşmaz’ rights under the First Amendment to freedom of the press and freedom of speech were violated. His photographic equipment was damaged and image files confiscated.

On the evening of Aug. 19, Şaşmaz had been photographing Ray Albers, a former St. Ann police office, who was pointing his weapon at protesters and yelling that he was going to kill them. A St. Louis County Police officer threw Şaşmaz violently into the pavement, handcuffed and arrested him, even though Şaşmaz repeatedly said “Press, Press” to identify himself as a member of the media to the officer.

Şaşmaz, of Middle Eastern descent, was working alongside many Caucasian reporters and photographers, who were not arrested but documented the interaction. “Mr. Şaşmaz should not have been treated like a criminal when he was only doing his job of reporting the unrest in Ferguson,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Democracy suffers whenever the police hinder our news gatherers.”

“The ACLU will do everything we can to preserve the freedom of the press, which has been hampered many times in Ferguson,” says Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The public has a right to learn what is happening in their community and draw their own conclusions about the appropriateness of police conduct.”

Full Marriage Equality Comes to Missouri

November 07, 2014

U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie D. Smith ruled today that same-sex couples can obtain marriage licenses. This judgment strikes down Missouri’s 2004 constitutional amendment that excluded gay men and lesbians from marriage allowing Missouri to join the 32 states and the District of Columbia that issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The ruling came in Lawson v. Jackson County, a lawsuit filed June 24 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU of Missouri) on behalf of two couples (Angela Curtis & Shannon McGinty and Kyle Lawson & Evan Dahlgren), who were denied marriage licenses earlier this year.

“Sharing this news will be almost as exciting as when we got engaged,” said Angela Curtis, who has been waiting to marry Shannon McGinty until they could do so in Missouri. “It was important to us to wait for full marriage equality where we could celebrate with all of our family and friends in the state where we live,” explains Shannon McGinty.

“This is a historic day for same-sex couples, who have waited far too long to be able to marry in Missouri,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “It feels great for Missouri to join the mainstream by allowing loving couples to formalize their commitment with marriage.”

“Today’s ruling affirms what the ACLU has always proclaimed—same-sex couples and their families should be treated just like any other loving family,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Missouri will no longer categorically exclude gay men and lesbians from the institution of marriage—marriage is marriage, regardless of your sexual orientation.”  

Category: LGBT Rights

The Mobile Justice App: The Next Best Thing to Having a Civil Rights Attorney on Speed Dial

November 06, 2014

By Mustafa Abdullah

On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 19th, staff at the ACLU of Missouri read several tweets from protesters in Ferguson indicating that they were not being allowed to protest. I immediately went to Ferguson to meet up with the protesters, hear their stories and educate them on their rights. 

Peaceful protesters were being told by the police that they were not allowed to stand on the sidewalk for more than five seconds. I fully understood that I would be arrested if I did not comply with the order. In fact, I was subsequently told that I could not walk back and forth over the same block, nor could I stand and pray on the sidewalk. I was harassed a total of five times within an hour.

The only reason this absurd five-second rule is no longer in effect is a successful Federal Court challenge to the 5 second rule that was won by the ACLU of Missouri.  Most of the goings-on in Ferguson have made it clear that US law enforcement officers are defaulting to militarization as opposed to de-escalation in times of civil unrest. In reaction to the larger trend of police using excessive force during these episodes the ACLU has created Mobile Justice.

Mobile Justice is the most important app you will download all year. With the increasing militarization of police forces nationwide, Mobile Justice allows for people to record interactions with law enforcement and to have those recordings be automatically sent to the ACLU of Missouri.  People can also use the app to fill out a written incident report and to notify other app users within a mile of the exact location of an ongoing interaction with law enforcement.  As Prof. Justin Hansford, a leader in the local Don’t Shoot Coalition, said, Mobile Justice “is the next best thing to having a civil rights attorney on speed dial.” The app has Know Your Rights materials on tap for reference that provide important guidelines on what to do when you find yourself in a sticky situation with law enforcement. Apps like this are essential to ensuring our democracy and preservation of our basic civil rights.

The app should equip all Missourians, including the leaders of this movement, with more courage to protest and have their voice heard. The app will also hold law enforcement officials accountable when they violate the law or the constitution.  Broadly speaking, no matter what conclusion is handed down from the Darren Wilson grand jury, it will not negate the reality that Michael Brown’s death is part of a national pattern of police officers using excessive and sometimes fatal force against law-abiding Americans. The intention of this app is to stop this trend and to stop it now.