The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

From the Land of the Liberty Bell: Investigate the NSA

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of PA

Here in Pennsylvania, we have a full-time legislature, so as the lobbyist for the Pennsylvania affiliate of the ACLU, I have plenty of opportunities for face time with state legislators and staff. Since June, I’ve been hearing a similar refrain repeatedly: NSA surveillance is a major problem. We deal with a lot of state-level surveillance legislation, and I’ve joked with legislators and staff that Edward Snowden has made my job a lot easier.Last week, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives formalized that concern by passing a resolution to protest the NSA’s sweeping surveillance activities and to call on Congress to create a special committee to investigate and to recommend revisions to the USA PATRIOT Act and for reforms at the NSA and the FBI. The vote on House Resolution 456 wasn’t even close.

The final tally: 194 to 2.

As an observer of civil liberties trends in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, I was not surprised by this overwhelming bipartisan vote. Our state House has made it clear on repeated occasions that it is serious about privacy. In October of 2012, the House defeated legislation to require DNA collection from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. Two weeks ago, the House passed an amendment to require prosecutors to obtain a search warrant before they can access data from a prescription drug monitoring program. Both of these victories for civil liberties happened despite the objections of the Office of the Attorney General and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

The Pennsylvania House has good reason to worry. Since June, disclosure after disclosure has revealed that the NSA is vacuuming up the call records of nearly all Americans and is filtering through the contents of our international communications. The disclosures haven’t stopped though, and with each disclosure more and more Americans are saying “Stop watching us.”

Our state House made a strong statement in passing HR 456. We hope that Sens. Bob Casey, Jr.  and Pat Toomey and the rest of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation get the message clearly and support the USA FREEDOM Act introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this week. Among other things, the billrightly ends the indiscriminate collection of American call records, as well as prohibits the bulk collection of any other records, and requires a court order before the government can search through its databases containing the international communications of Americans.

Pennsylvanians won’t stand for an overly-intrusive government that pokes its nose in our daily lives.