This opinion piece first ran in the Anchorage Daily News.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect and appreciate positive changes we’ve seen over the preceding year. One change I’ve been grateful for is the increased work and successes of our Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
For those unfamiliar with the ACLU, their attorneys and staff work in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend the individual rights guaranteed to all people by the Constitution. The ACLU has defended free speech, personal privacy, citizens’ rights to equal treatment under the law, and more for over 100 years.
I am proud to say they can count me among their supporters.
Fueled by their successful challenge to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, the national ACLU has grown rapidly, from 400,000 members when President Donald Trump was elected to 2 million members today. The Alaska chapter has experienced similar growth, tripling its staff and becoming much more active and visible on Alaska issues during this time.
Take, for example, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. I heard from many Alaska women concerned that no one in power seemed to be seriously considering the allegations against him. This was deeply troubling in a state with historically nightmarish sexual assault rates and a persistent stigma against the women who report them.
But the ACLU of Alaska leaped to action by organizing travel and covering costs for 100 Alaskan women to go to Washington, D.C. to tell our senators what they thought before the vote later that week.
Unbelievably, and with the ACLU’s help, more than 100 Alaska women traveled to our nation’s capital on virtually no notice. More unbelievably, those women found an open ear in Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who subsequently voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination.
An amazing success, to be sure, but not the only one the ACLU of Alaska claimed in 2018.
Like many Alaskans, I was concerned when, in the summer of 2017, the Alaska Family Council launched yet another attack on our LGBTQ neighbors. This time, the Council wanted to enact Proposition 1, a so-called “bathroom bill” to prohibit transgender people from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. It was a transparent attempt to tell transgender Alaskans “We don’t want your kind around here.”
Undaunted by the uphill battle ahead, a strong coalition led by the ACLU of Alaska united behind the transgender community and fought back. In addition to investing more than $100,000 in campaign cash, the ACLU hired and managed the campaign staff and offered up their own offices and staff as a resource.
There are plenty of folks who should be proud of their work in the first-in-the-nation defeat of a bathroom bill, but the ACLU deserves even more credit for their willingness to step up and lead.
From historic, precedent-setting civil rights litigation like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, the ACLU always seems to be on the right side of history, and that legacy continues here in Alaska.
The ACLU of Alaska has sued to protect the reproductive rights of women, ensure that incarcerated Native Americans can express their religion, fought for elected officials’ free speech rights, forced the Kenai Peninsula Borough to respect diverse religious beliefs and prevented Alaska police departments from targeting undocumented immigrants.
But perhaps nothing the ACLU of Alaska did in 2018 better illustrates their mission and values than their work with the independent expenditure group Dunleavy for Alaska. Together, they sued over the state’s unconstitutional restrictions on Alaskans’ rights to put signs on their own property supporting candidates or causes.
The government saying “We the People” can’t voice our political opinions on our own property is a blatant attack on the foundations of free speech, but who wants to challenge that during an election campaign, when there are so many other things to do? Thankfully, the ACLU of Alaska didn’t check political registration before offering to help.
For the ACLU, free speech isn’t the privilege afforded to any one party. It’s the right of everyone in our great country.
The ACLU’s commitment to principle regardless of politics is why they can be such a wonderfully frustrating organization to support, and it’s why we need them as strong and active as they can be. Now more than ever, we need someone who is willing to take an unpopular position, stand up to those in power, and right civic wrongs that might otherwise go unanswered.
That is how change happens.
As one of my fellow ACLU of Alaska members recently said, “I don’t always agree with them, but, man, am I glad they are there.”
I can’t begin to adequately express how proud I am of the ACLU of Alaska’s growth last year, and I’m excited to see what they’ll be doing in 2019.
Sen. Berta Gardner represents Midtown Anchorage District I and has served in the Alaska State Legislature since 2004.