ACLU-NJ Celebrates 50 Years on the Front Lines of Freedom

June 16, 2010
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Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.

In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.

"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."

Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.

"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."

"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."

Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.

In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.

Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:

  • Defended the rights of women in schools, from a tennis star (represented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who won the right to play on the high school boys' tennis team, to the Princeton student who turned its Ivy League all-male eating clubs co-ed.
  • Blocked a bill requiring a "one-minute period of silence" for prayer in public schools in 1983.
  • Defended 12 motorists who had been racially profiled on the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1990s.
  • Propelled New Jersey to become the first state in the nation to grant equal standing to gay and lesbian couples jointly adopting in 1997.
  • Successfully challenged the state's ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and a law requiring parents to sign off on a minor's abortion in 2000.
  • Challenged secret detentions and organized locally, fending off attempts to chip away at individual rights following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
  • Defeated local laws written to exclude immigrants from housing, won humane working conditions for immigrants, and helped enforce the rights of young immigrants to attend public school.
  • Established stronger First Amendment protections in schools and malls, as well as developments run by homeowners associations.

The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org

"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."

The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.

Appeals Court Protects Anonymous Internet Critics of NJ Company

July 29, 2004
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MORRISTOWN, N.J. — Adopting arguments made by attorneys for Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of New Jersey, a New Jersey appeals court rejected a company's attempt to discover the identities of anonymous Internet message posters by going to court. The case is the first time any appeals court in the nation has considered this question.

The company, Dendrite International, failed to meet the stringent legal standards required for it to obtain subpoenas for the disclosure of the identities of people who post Web messages about those companies, Judge Robert Fall ruled today in an opinion for a three judge panel of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.

"Several other courts have articulated similar standards for deciding whether to compel the identification of anonymous Internet speakers, but this decision marks the first time that any appeals court has considered such a request for identification," said Paul Levy, who filed a brief for Public Citizen as a friend of the court. "Because it sets forth strict procedural and evidentiary standards for compelled identification, and then shows that these standards can produce real protection for anonymity, this decision is a tremendous victory for free speech."

Levy predicted that for this reason, as well as the court's thorough analysis of constitutional rights involved, the decision is likely to be especially influential in future cases. Yahoo! recently told a judge in another case that it has received "thousands" of subpoenas like Dendrite's.

The court issued the ruling in a case in which Dendrite International, a supplier of sales force software products and support services to the pharmaceutical industry, sued four people who posted messages anonymously about the company on a Yahoo! message board. Dendrite alleged that three of the message posters made false statements, that two of them who identified themselves as employees violated employment agreements, and that three of them published secret information. After Dendrite asked the court to authorize it to pursue discovery to identify the defendants, Superior Court Judge Kenneth MacKenzie ordered Dendrite to post a notice of its request on the Yahoo! message board to alert the potential defendants that their anonymity was at issue. Two of the posters hired lawyers to defend their right to

remain anonymous, and Public Citizen entered the case as a friend of the court to argue for a limited right to anonymity. After Judge MacKenzie ruled in favor of the two posters, Dendrite appealed the denial of its request to identify one of the posters.

The court accepted Public Citizen's argument that court must "strike a balance between the well-established First Amendment right to speak anonymously, and the right of the plaintiff to protect its proprietary interests and reputation [against] actionable conduct of anonymous, fictionally named defendants." To achieve this balance, Judge Fall adopted a four-part test, following the standard proposed in Public Citizen's brief, to ensure that the right to speak anonymously can be lost only if the plaintiff can show that it had a valid case against the speakers that could not be pursued without identifying the speakers.

Under this standard, the court should first require the plaintiff to attempt to notify the anonymous posters that their identities are being sought, and give the defendants an opportunity to oppose the request. The plaintiff must identify the exact statements alleged to be unlawful. The court must then decide both whether the complaint states a valid claim for relief, and whether the plaintiff has enough evidence to support its claim. Finally, if these first three standards is met, "the court must balance the defendant's First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the strength of the prima facie case and the necessity for the disclosure of the anonymous defendant's identity to allow the plaintiff to proceed."

The court upheld Judge MacKenzie's ruling that Dendrite had not met this standard, because there was no proof that the messages had caused its stock price to fall, or had otherwise caused it harm.

Public Citizen argued in its brief that because the main purpose of such suits is often to unmask the company's critics, the identification of those critics should be treated as a major form of relief that cannot be awarded without proof of wrongdoing. A company should not be able to deny members of the public the right to speak anonymously simply by filing a complaint and making vague allegations of wrongdoing. The Internet, Levy argued, is "the modern equivalent of the Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park. That's where anybody can stand up and voice their opinions -- however silly, profane or brilliant they might seem -- to anyone who chooses to listen. By establishing tough standards that companies must meet before anonymous speakers may be identified, and then actually applying those standards to protect the only two defendants who came to court to defend themselves, while inviting the other two speakers to explain why they, too, should be protected, Judge Fall has set an important precedent protecting the free speech rights of all Internet posters."

In a second case, Immunomedics v. Doe, which was argued in tandem with the Dendrite case, the appellate court applied the same standard set out in Dendrite and affirmed a trial court's denial of a motion to quash. In that case, the court held that there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Jane Doe in question was an employee who had breached a confidentiality agreement and that that evidence supported a bona fide claim of breach of contract.

Public Citizen filed the brief because it champions free speech rights. The organization recently represented a person who posted anonymous messages on a Yahoo! message board about Thomas & Betts Corporation, a Tennessee manufacturer of electrical components. The company dismissed the case with a statement that it did not want to chill free speech on the Internet. Public Citizen is also representing an employee who anonymously posted a message on the Internet about an executive of Ohio-based AK Steel Company. The executive has sued to learn the identity of the employee for this allegedly defamatory posting.

J.C. Salyer of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation was local counsel in the case. Judges Edwin Stern and Ariel Rodriguez joined Judge Fall's opinion.

Federal Appeals Court Clears Way For ACLU Lawsuit Over FBI Censorship of Website

July 28, 2004
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NEW YORK- The American Civil Liberties Union today said it will be moving forward in its First Amendment lawsuit over censorship of a controversial website by federal law enforcement officials, now that a federal appeals court has rejected the government's attempt to dismiss the case.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in December 1999, charged that officials at the U. S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation intimidated an independent filmmaker and his website operator in an attempt to have a controversial film removed from the Internet.

"The government cannot bully controversial speakers into self-censorship," said J.C. Salyer, a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey who represents New Jersey artist Mike Zieper and his web host, Mark Wieger of Michigan. "Our clients believe they had the right to show the film without government intimidation, and they are now looking forward to having their day in court."

Zieper's film, a fictional six-minute video entitled "Military Takeover of Times Square," portrayed a secret army plan to incite a race riot in Times Square at the millennial New Year's Eve celebration. The ACLU lawsuit charged that Zieper and Wieger were subjected to intimidating phone calls from an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor who wanted the film removed from the Internet. The FBI even went to Zieper's home at night in their attempt to have his film censored. As a result of the government pressure, the film was removed from the website for a period of time prior to New Year's Eve.

Up to this point, the ACLU lawsuit has primarily dealt with the government's claims that law enforcement officials did not clearly violate the First Amendment and that they should be granted immunity for their actions, Salyer explained. In a ruling issued yesterday, the federal appeals court affirmed the trial court's holding that the First Amendment allegations, if proved, would be a constitutional violation. The ruling also clears the way for the ACLU to have the merits of their clients' case heard.

"As the Supreme Court has ruled, speech on the Internet is entitled to full First Amendment protection," Salyer noted. "The government cannot directly order the censorship of a controversial website, nor can it use intimidation to suppress controversial speech on a website, as was done in this case."

The case is Zieper et al. v. Ashcroft et al., Docket No. 02-618. The opinion by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals can be found online at http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov

Attorneys in the case are Ann Beeson, Chris Hansen and Juan G. Villaseñor of the national ACLU and Salyer and Ed Barocas of the ACLU of New Jersey.

A previous news release about the case, with links to the original legal complaint as well as the Zieper's website, is at  http://www.aclu.org/FreeSpeech/FreeSpeech.cfm?ID=8803&c=83&Type=s

Red Alert - ACLU-NJ Calls Counter-Terrorism Chief's Comments Counter-Productive

July 27, 2004
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NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today severely criticized a high-level state official for saying that in the event of a “red alert” security level, “You literally are staying at home…What we’re saying is, ‘Everybody sit down.’ If you are left standing, you are probably a terrorist.”

“What that statement describes is essentially martial law,” said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ.

“If ever necessary,” Jacobs added, “such extreme actions could only be justified in exceptionally limited situations where an investigation could pose a direct danger to the public in a restricted geographic area.”

Since the official, Sid Caspersen, the Director of the New Jersey Office of Counter-terrorism, made his statements, Jacobs said that the ACLU has received dozens of phone calls from members of the public concerned about the consequences of a red-alert lockdown. Some parents, for example, said they feared that they would be unable to find their children.

“While the Governor’s office seeks to assuage the public’s anxiety, comments like Caspersen’s seem only to exacerbate things,” Jacobs said.

Another point of concern that Caspersen’s comments raised was the claim that New Jersey has recently secretly arrested and detained suspected terrorists. Caspersen told listeners of a radio program on which he was interviewed that the public isn’t “going to read about them any time soon.”

“In one breath, Caspersen tries to encourage public trust by stating that ‘the state’s on top of it.’ In the next breath, he brags about secret arrests,” Jacobs said. “The proven way to create public trust is to conduct government business in the open.”

Jacobs said that as part of its ongoing litigation challenging government secrecy, the ACLU would seek to learn more about the “secret arrests” that Caspersen highlighted.

The ACLU currently has two pending cases concerning government secrecy since September 11. The first involves the closure of courtrooms for more than 1,000 immigration hearings, ordered closed to the press and public on September 21, 2001 by the Chief U.S. Immigrant Judge. The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A second case involves the refusal of the government to release the names of individuals who were arrested on immigration violations in the weeks following September 11. This case is currently before an appeals court in Washington.