Poor parents have right to representation when challenging private adoptions, NJ Supreme Court rules

July 27, 2016
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Indigent mother had a right to lawyer when she lost custody of her child in private adoption

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously recognized a right to free legal representation for low-income parents challenging private adoptions of their children. This Supreme Court decision found for the first time in New Jersey that low-income parents have a right to counsel in proceedings to end parental rights, even when the adoption is initiated by a private party.

The ACLU of New Jersey submitted a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) in the case, which involved a low-income mother who had placed her daughter for private foster care. When the foster parents sought to adopt the child and terminate the mother’s parental rights, the mother was forced to represent herself at trial. As a result, she lost the case and her rights to parent her child were terminated. The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed an appellate court decision that also upheld the mother’s rights.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Livengood:

Rebecca Livengood

“Today’s decision means that New Jersey parents will no longer face the risk of unfairly losing their children simply because they couldn’t afford a lawyer. Low-income New Jerseyans already confront significant hurdles in protecting their rights in court; lack of representation in private adoption proceedings will no longer be among them.

“The Supreme Court’s decision reflects both the fundamental importance of the right to parent and the role of legal representation in ensuring due process, especially when the relationship between a parent and child is at stake.

“This ruling means that parents who oppose a private adoption of their children will not be forced by poverty to relinquish their parental rights without a fair hearing.”

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Hudson County’s Renewed Immigration Enforcement Sends Chilling Message

July 18, 2016
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Hudson County’s Renewed Immigration Enforcement Sends Chilling Message

As jurisdictions turn their back on ICE’s program, Hudson County renews contract to enforce immigration law at jail, raising civil rights and public safety concerns

Jersey City, NJ – Advocates throughout the state and Hudson County residents condemned Hudson County's decision on Friday to renew the 287(g) program at its jail. The decision came after two meetings with immigrants’ rights advocates and a series of private meetings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that administers 287(g) agreements.

"It's baffling and disconcerting that Hudson County officials have chosen to participate in ICE's enforcement and deportation machinery, which instills fear in immigrant communities and leads to the breakup of families," said Father Gene Squeo, former pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Jersey City and a lifetime Hudson County resident.

Although news reports suggested Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise was leaning in the direction of cancelling the contract with ICE, Hudson County renewed the contract to act as immigration agents in the Hudson County Correctional facility. In the Hudson County Correctional Facility, deputized facility officers function as mini-ICE representatives and are authorized to issue “immigration detainers,” documents that request immigrants be held and transferred into immigration custody. Hudson County Correctional Facility has had two previous 287(g) agreements. In fiscal year 2015, more than 300 immigration detainers were issued for Hudson County's immigration detainees, ten times more than any other law enforcement agency in New Jersey.

Advocates have criticized the lack of transparency throughout Hudson County’s process of renewing 287(g) and communications with ICE. Civil rights and immigrants’ rights groups also call on Hudson County to publish details on every arrest, detention and enforcement action taken under 287(g) for the public’s benefit.287(g), named after the provision in the 1986 Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) that allows law enforcement to carry out federal immigration functions, is a voluntary federal training program for local jurisdictions to assist in identifying, arresting and detaining undocumented or potentially deportable immigrants.

"At a time when immigrant leaders across the country are calling for a halt to ICE's massive deportation program, Hudson County is putting its official endorsement on our broken and inhumane immigration system,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Hudson County's decision to renew a program that demonstrably goes against the spirit of civil rights directly insults the immigrants in Hudson County, who make up the largest immigrant population in our state.”

Agreements under 287(g) have led to civil rights abuses, most notoriously under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose 287(g) agreement was terminated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after a federal investigation revealed racial profiling and discrimination.

"Hudson County, one of the most diverse places in all of the United States, has chosen to stand apart in our state by keeping this program in place,” said Johanna Calle, coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Hudson County joins the ranks of counties like Maricopa County in Arizona, where discrimination and prejudice run rampant, by volunteering to act as immigration agents.

We know that community members with minor offenses, like 10-year-old DUIs, are being detained and held in immigration detention like the one in Hudson County. We condemn this initiative and urge the county leadership to rethink their decision."

In May, advocates filed a petition with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) to investigate inhumane conditions at Hudson County Correctional Facility, which has consistently failed to provide its immigration detainees with adequate medical care. Investigations by CRCL are on the way, the federal agency has said.

The number of jurisdictions across the country participating in 287(g) has dropped from 77 in 2009 to 32 in 2016, as law enforcement has become aware of public safety and civil rights concerns and abandoned the program.

Immigrants who live in Hudson County and are booked into the jail, regardless of their charges and convictions, will likely be funneled into immigration detention unit as a result of this agreement. In addition to participating in 287(g), Hudson County Correctional Facility also operates the immigration detention unit through an Intergovernmental Service Agreement, or "immigration detention contract." Hudson County Director of Corrections Tish Nalls-Castillo has indicated that Hudson County has no cap on the number of immigration detainees the jail can house. Hudson County receives money for every bed used for ICE detainees and the jail currently houses between 450 and 600 immigrants for immigration purposes.

"As a resident of Hudson County and an advocate for immigrant rights, I am extremely disappointed at the government of Hudson County," said Rosa Santana, a lifelong Hudson County resident who was born and raised in Jersey City. Her uncle and other family members were deported, leaving behind their minor children. Rosa visits detainees in Hudson County regularly to provide support, as many immigrants do not have easy access to legal counsel or family members.

“Hudson County is one of the most diverse counties in our beloved country,” Santana added. “With all of the issues our law enforcement professionals currently face, renewing 287(g) makes us all less safe by making diverse communities fearful of reporting crimes. The Hudson County executive, the freeholders and the director of corrections have unfortunately chosen not to protect immigrant families and not to protect the safety of all Hudson County residents."

A broad-based coalition of labor, civil rights, immigrants’ rights, legal, and faith-based groups joined together to oppose renewal of Hudson County’s 287(g) contract: 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, 32BJ SEIU, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program, Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Casa Esperanza, Catholic Charities Diocese of Metuchen, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, Central Unitarian Church – Social Justice Committee, Centro Comunitario CEUS, Community of Friends in Action, Inc., El Centro Hispanoamericano, Faith in New Jersey, Filipino Immigrants and Workers Organizing Project, First Friends of New Jersey and New York, Grupo Cajola, Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast, Immigration Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, Kids in Need of Defense, La Unidad Latina -- NJ/PA Region and Gamma Eta Chapter, Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Latino Action Network, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry NJ, Make the Road New Jersey, Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought, Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, National Association of Social Workers – NJ Chapter, New Labor, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, New Jersey Clergy Coalition for Justice, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Forum for Human Rights, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Jersey Working Families Alliance, NYU Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic* (*these views do not necessarily reflect the position of NYU Law School, which is listed for identification purposes only), Statewide Parent and Advocacy Network, Inc., Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, and Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resources Center.

ACLU-NJ Statement on the Police Killings in Louisiana and Minnesota

July 7, 2016
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Update July 8, 2016: Please also read the ACLU of Texas' statement in the aftermath of the killings in Dallas.

In the wake of two separate police killings – Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota – the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) issues the following statement:

"It is impossible to watch the videos of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile without experiencing anger. Though details surrounding both killings are still unfolding, they reinforce the perception that we have a criminal justice system that is designed to protect the constitutional rights of only some, suppress the rights of others, and allow police violence against communities of color to go relatively unchecked and unbridled, all while devaluing Black life.

"The police killings of people of color in this country represent a grave injustice, as does the collective trauma inflicted upon communities by the viral spectacle of Black deaths at the hands of the police. The ACLU-NJ is committed to fighting for racial and economic justice. However, these killings are not just an issue of racial justice; they are a matter of human rights.

"Our criminal justice system needs more than piecemeal reforms – it needs a total reimagining. It is time to create a criminal justice system that treats all people with dignity and respect."


Salem County Urged to Reject Immigration Enforcement Role

July 5, 2016
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Agreement with ICE would compromise public safety and harm NJ communities, 42 diverse organizations say in letter

Concerned about public safety and civil rights, 42 organizations jointly sent a letter (PDF) to Salem County urging the county Sheriff's Office not to join a voluntary federal program that deputizes local law enforcement officers to perform the functions of federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents. The program, known as 287(g) in reference to a provision in federal immigration law, has been rejected by most law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Salem County is seeking to have officers in the Salem County Correctional Facility deputized under the program.

Deputizing local officers as ICE agents jeopardizes public safety by deterring immigrants and their loved ones from interacting with police and reporting crimes based on fears that they or friends and family may wind up in deportation proceedings.

"Voluntarily applying for a 287(g) contract sends the message that deportation is a potential consequence of any interaction with law enforcement," the letter said.

The letter was sent from civil rights organizations, immigrants' rights advocates, faith-based institutions, and legal service groups from across the state, including the ACLU of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee and New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, for just a few examples.

"Law enforcement should be focused on building stronger ties with the communities they serve, not fraying them by stoking fear among immigrant communities," said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director at the American Friends Service Committee. "Families need to know that local law enforcement is focused on community safety, not running a deportation operation."

Agreements under 287(g) have led to civil rights abuses, most notoriously under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose 287(g) agreement was terminated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after a federal investigation revealed racial profiling and discrimination. The number of participating jurisdictions across the country has dropped from 77 in 2009 to 32 in 2016, as law enforcement has abandoned the program based on public safety and civil rights concerns.

Two other county jails, in Hudson and Monmouth, have 287(g) contracts with ICE, although the most recent contracts expired June 30. Following years of advocacy against the program by many of the same groups who signed the letter, news reports have indicated that Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise may be leaning toward not renewing that county's contract.

"As law enforcement agencies all over the country have fled the failed 287(g) program in droves, Salem County is looking to swim upstream to become a national outlier," said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "New Jersey has long been a state that protects and embraces its immigrant communities. If it continues down this path, Salem County will be sending the opposite message: immigrants not welcome."

To the knowledge of the organizations signing the letter, Salem County has held no public discussions nor sought any public input on the decision to apply to participate in the program, despite county officials having interacted with ICE about the program since at least October 2015, based on correspondence between the agencies obtained from a public records request by the ACLU of New Jersey.

"Attempting to move forward with this contract without public input does a disservice to the democratic process and diminishes the legitimacy of this decision," the letter said.

"These kinds of controversial agreements change the nature of law enforcement in the county and impact safety, civil rights, and accountability," said Johanna Calle, program coordinator of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. "But despite the controversy and the demonstrated harms surrounding this program, Salem County officials have decided to proceed only through private, backroom discussions. The public, including immigrant communities and other community stakeholders in Salem County, must have a say in how local law enforcement agencies do business."

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ACLU-NJ Adds Four New Trustees

June 30, 2016
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CJ Griffin, S. Nadia Hussain, Valerie McCarthy, and Amardeep Singh Are Elected to ACLU-NJ Board of Trustees

The ACLU of New Jersey has announced that its Board of Trustees has elected four new members.

Joining the ACLU-NJ’s 17-member board are Pashman Stein Walder Hayden attorney CJ Griffin of Jersey City, Andrew Goodman Foundation Program Director S. Nadia Hussain of Paterson, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden family law attorney Valerie Jules McCarthy of North Bergen, and Open Society Foundations National Security & Human Rights Campaign Program Officer Amardeep Singh of Hoboken.

“The Board of the ACLU of New Jersey is privileged to welcome these four accomplished and passionate advocates for civil liberties and civil rights,” said ACLU-NJ Board President Debra Guston.

CJ Griffin, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden Attorney, ACLU-NJ Cooperating Attorney, Vaunted Open Government Litigator

CJ Griffin

Before joining the board, CJ Griffin was well-known at the ACLU of New Jersey as a cooperating attorney, working on behalf of the organization in a case concerning custody decisions based on a parent’s use of “offensive” language, along with several others. She works as a litigator in Pashman Stein Walder Hayden’s Access to Public Records and Employment & Labor Law practices, and she is the immediate past president of the New Jersey Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Section.

My work with the ACLU of New Jersey as a cooperating attorney has been some of the most rewarding of my career, and I feel honored that I can work to strengthen our rights in a different capacity as a trustee. I know firsthand that the ACLU of New Jersey is an open government powerhouse, and I’m excited to lend my knowledge on the subject. At the same time, I am just as excited to make an impact on the broader array of pressing civil rights and civil liberties issues currently facing New Jerseyans.

S. Nadia Hussain, Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Program Director, Longtime Human Rights Advocate

S. Nadia Hussain

S. Nadia Hussain’s drive to fight for human rights led her the ACLU-NJ’s Board of Trustees, as well as to her current position as the Vote Everywhere program director for the Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organization created in memory of the civil rights activist who lost his life working to register Black voters in the South. Hussain founded the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative to empower and organize women in under-served Bangladeshi communities in NJ and blogs for EmbraceRace, an online community focused on raising children with racial justice values.

My core belief was articulated by Martin Luther King Jr.: That the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Everything I do follows in that spirit, and it has brought me to the ACLU of New Jersey. Few places have fought as doggedly, or as successfully, as the ACLU and its New Jersey affiliate. I hope to use my experiences as a human rights activist to strengthen the rights of New Jerseyans.

Valerie Jules McCarthy, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden Attorney, Esteemed Family Law Practitioner

Valerie Jules McCarthy

Attorney Valerie Jules McCarthy, who has appeared as a resource on family law issues in the media, practices family law as an associate with the law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.

I am incredibly passionate about the ACLU of New Jersey’s work in the legal, legislative and public education arenas, and I have always been impressed by the organization’s consistent success in any form of advocacy it takes. Right now, as women's rights and reproductive freedom are under attack nationwide, I feel particularly driven to protect those rights with the ACLU of New Jersey. I feel motivated as a board member to build on the organization’s past accomplishments by helping secure new successes in the present and in the future.

Amardeep Singh, Open Society Foundations Program Officer, Co-Founder of the Sikh Coalition, Renowned Civil and Human Rights Advocate

Amardeep Singh

Amardeep Singh is one of the most respected human rights advocates in the country. He co-founded the New York City-based Sikh Coalition, an organization formed to confront anti-Sikh prejudice and violence after September 11. He currently works as a program officer for the Open Society Foundations and served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In the past, he has worked for Human Rights Watch and taught at Columbia University’s Center on the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

As a civil rights advocate, I have worked in partnership with the ACLU for years, and the principles that guide my own life are the same ideals that define the ACLU. Joining the ACLU of New Jersey as a member of the board feels almost like a homecoming, particularly since I am a lifelong and proud New Jersey resident. It’s an organization that stands for the most fundamental principles we share as Americans, and I consider it an honor to help move its priorities forward.

The four new members started at the April meeting.

“The ACLU of New Jersey has an extremely talented group making up its board, and the collective experience of our four new Trustees will help advance the work of the organization even further,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Our four new board members embody what the ACLU of New Jersey is all about: channeling talent and a commitment to civil rights and civil liberties to make New Jersey a place that promises justice for all, not just for some.”

Learn more about the ACLU-NJ’s dedicated board and staff members.

NJ Transit Decision to End Recording Passenger Audio a Win for Privacy

June 29, 2016
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The ACLU-NJ of New Jersey today applauded the news that NJ Transit has ended its practice of conducting audio surveillance on its light rail lines.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero:

Jeanne LoCicero

"Faced with an outcry from riders and civil liberties advocates, NJ Transit has finally made the right decision to abandon its troubling audio surveillance program. The pervasive audio surveillance used on the light rail destroys our ability to have a personal conversation with a loved one on the train. We are glad NJ Transit has backed down from this extreme invasion of privacy.

"Not only was NJ Transit collecting countless hours of train conversations, but the agency irresponsibly failed to put policies in place to prevent misuse of the recordings or to protect passengers' privacy. State agencies should think twice before dismissing New Jerseyans’ privacy rights so easily.

"We at the ACLU-NJ are glad that NJ Transit has shut off the microphones on its light rail trains and ended its mass audio surveillance of the public. We hope the agency thinks carefully about New Jerseyans’ privacy rights in all future decisions."

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NJ Assembly Passes Anti-Boycott Bill that Suppresses Political Speech and Creates Blacklists

June 27, 2016
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Legislation will penalize companies that choose not to invest in Israel for political reasons

The New Jersey Assembly voted 69-3-2 today on S1923, a bill that forbids investment from the state pension fund in any company that boycotts Israel or Israeli businesses. The bill poses a threat to free speech and free association by punishing companies for their political opinions.

The Senate passed the legislation unanimously in May. It will now head to Governor Chris Christie’s desk.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin:

Ari Rosmarin

“The passage of S1923 represents a low point for the freedom of speech in New Jersey in recent years. The legislation tarnishes our constitutional rights and chills a time-honored form of political protest.

“If enacted, New Jerseyans will pay for government investigators to put their own beliefs under a microscope. The New Jersey Legislature has voted to bring back blacklists that single people out for their political opinions and punish people for what they say and believe.

“Despite claims to the contrary, this bill will not combat discrimination. It turns this state’s previous support for principled boycotts, like that of Apartheid South Africa, on its head. Now, if two companies don’t invest in Israel, only the one that has done so with political motivations will face sanctions. First Amendment-protected activity should not land anyone a spot on a government blacklist. This legislation, simply put, is anti-free speech and raises serious constitutional problems.

“No matter your political viewpoint or opinion on the conflict in the Middle East, our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and protest must come first. Lawmakers are free to choose sides in matters of international concern, but they cannot unilaterally punish New Jerseyans who disagree with their point of view.”

Solitary Confinement Reform Bill Passes in Historic Senate Vote

June 27, 2016
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The New Jersey Senate approved a historic bill restricting solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons and jails, making history by voting to end routine use of the tactic and bar its use on our most vulnerable populations. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak, passed by a vote of 23-16. The bill will now go to the Assembly for passage.

“This is a historic moment for civil and human rights in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We thank Sen. Lesniak for his unwavering leadership on this issue and for advancing a bill that would make New Jersey a model for the reform of solitary confinement nationwide. For the first time, a New Jersey legislative chamber has voted to rein in our state’s overuse and abuse of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.”

The bill, S51:

  • Requires facilities to use solitary confinement only as a last resort
  • Prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period
  • Bans isolation for the most vulnerable populations, including people who have mental
  • illnesses, pregnant women, LGBT people, and people with various disabilities
  • Requires medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement

New Jersey joins a national trend in taking this step to restrict the use of solitary confinement. President Obama enacted similar standards for solitary confinement in federal prisons and jails, and many states have severely limited the use of solitary confinement, with gains in public safety and benefits to state budgets.

In New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ has brought several legal cases challenging the abuse and misuse of solitary confinement. One man, P.D., who has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, was held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail, despite the particular harms solitary confinement can inflict on such individuals. The ACLU-NJ also represents a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Middlesex County Jail, as well as a man who was given more than three years of solitary confinement for throwing a bucket of water mixed with feces.

“Solitary confinement is expensive, it’s damaging, and it worsens mental illness – and in some cases actually causes it in people who were healthy before solitary,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Prisons and jails are using solitary confinement as a routine, garden-variety punishment, when in fact it’s a traumatic and inhumane form of punishment that can leave permanent scars. Using solitary confinement when alternatives exist harms both prisoners and corrections staff.”

Some examples of infractions that have resulted in solitary confinement in New Jersey include:

  • A man in New Jersey State Prison, who received 90 days in solitary for using obscene language to a staff member, despite the fact that witnesses said the officer was the one who used foul language, not the inmate.
  • An inmate acting as an informal “jailhouse lawyer,” who received solitary for providing legal help to female prisoners filing in a class-action civil rights suit, for having “contraband” – letters from attorneys, and for making three-way phone calls. He was given 810 days in solitary confinement.
  • A man who received 180 days of solitary confinement because he was prescribed 50 mg of Benadryl, and he had two 25-mg pills instead.

Administrative segregation units, a form of solitary confinement, are more expensive to maintain than normal incarceration conditions. By shifting away from these units, the ACLU-NJ calculated that the state could ultimately save more than $5 million per year by cutting solitary confinement by 50 percent, based on conservative estimates.

The Department of Corrections has claimed that solitary confinement does not take place in New Jersey facilities. Rather, it uses the label “restrictive housing units,” a difference in terminology that amounts to the same practice. For that reason, the Department of Corrections has stated it cannot participate in estimating the fiscal impact of solitary confinement reform.

“Ending solitary confinement abuse is a critical part of fixing our broken criminal justice system. This issue poses fundamental questions of how we want to treat the most vulnerable in our society, and who we want our neighbors to be once they are released from prisons and jails,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “We believe limiting solitary confinement is a human rights imperative, and we encourage the Assembly to follow the Senate and bring the bill up for a vote quickly.”

ACLU-NJ Reaffirms Opposition to Anti-Boycott Bill

June 23, 2016
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In the face of criticism from free speech advocates, New Jersey legislators in the Assembly on June 16 recently amended a bill, A1923/A925, that would forbid investment of the New Jersey state pension fund in any company that boycotts Israel. The amendment deletes a phrase in the legislation’s definition of the word “boycott.” Instead of being a “politically motivated” action meant to have an economic impact on a specific place, a boycott is now defined in the bill as an action meant to have an economic impact on a specific place.

After examining the amendment, the ACLU of New Jersey reiterates its firm opposition to the constitutionally problematic bill. A vote in the Assembly is scheduled for Monday, June 27. The Senate has passed its version of the bill.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin:

Ari Rosmarin

“The ACLU-NJ remains opposed to S1923/A925, which would withdraw state pension funds from any company perceived to take a political position boycotting Israel.

“The amendments made to the Assembly bill do not fix our serious constitutional concerns, and our opposition to the bill remains unchanged.

“In our analysis, the change is purely cosmetic. A boycott by its very nature is a form of protest and by extension a political act. This change may use different words to describe a boycott, but it does not address our criticism that the bill violates the First Amendment by punishing people for what they say and believe.

“S1923/A925, scheduled for a vote in the Assembly, continues to pose a significant threat to civil liberties in New Jersey. This legislation still punishes speech — political and otherwise — and still builds government blacklists targeting people who hold certain political viewpoints. The ACLU-NJ continues to oppose the legislation and urges lawmakers to vote no on the legislation.”

Anti-Boycott Bill Harms Speech & Creates Blacklists, ACLU-NJ Says

June 8, 2016
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Bill penalizes companies for not investing in Israel based on political beliefs

Legislation to forbid the state’s investment in companies that boycott Israel would raise serious constitutional problems by harming free speech and using government resources to build political blacklists, the ACLU-NJ said in a letter (PDF) expressing its strong opposition to the proposed law.

The bill, S1923/A925, prohibits the state’s pension and annuities funds from investing in any company that supports boycotts of Israel or Israeli businesses. The legislation mandates government investigations into people’s beliefs to determine if their reasons for not doing business with Israel are political and punishes people for holding unpopular opinions, stifling constitutionally protected speech.

“This bill singles people out for punishment based on their political opinions and beliefs, and that raises significant First Amendment concerns,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “This legislation requires that decisions about state investment be based on an ideological litmus test of companies. New Jersey should stay out of the business of building political blacklists and punishing unpopular opinions, regardless of what the controversy of the day may be. Government investigators shouldn’t be spying on New Jerseyans’ political beliefs to check if they match the political opinions of lawmakers.”

The ACLU-NJ sent the letter to the sponsors of the Senate and Assembly versions of the bill: Senator James Beach, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Assemblyman Gary Schaer.

By requiring the state to examine the political statements of companies and individuals, the state would chill free speech and freedom of association, the ACLU-NJ said in its letter. The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized boycotts as a First Amendment-protected activity and has ruled that the government cannot institute regulations designed to punish speech intended to influence public opinion or policy.

In order to determine which companies would be subject to divestment from the state pension fund, the bill calls on the State Investment Council to hire a research firm to identify companies that boycott Israel, among other mechanisms.

“The last thing we need is government investigators attempting to sniff out New Jerseyans’ political beliefs to ensure they conform to lawmakers’ preferred political opinions,” the letter reads. “Such investigations would chill people from exercising their core First Amendment right to speak on political issues, especially where their opinions are unpopular.”

"If two similar companies do not invest in Israel, only the outspoken one will be punished," said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. "This bill would set a terrible precedent for New Jersey and place us back into an era when engaging in First Amendment-protected activity earns you a spot on a government blacklist. The Legislature is free to pick sides in matters of international concern, but lawmakers cannot unilaterally punish New Jerseyans who feel differently."

The bill marks a departure from previous efforts to divest state funds from socially controversial companies, the ACLU-NJ’s letter emphasized. When the pension fund divested from apartheid-era South Africa, Sudan, or Iran, the state chose to penalize all firms that did business with those countries, placing the focus on their actions. In stark contrast, this legislation differentiates between companies that do not conduct business with Israel for political reasons and those that do not conduct business for all other reasons, punishing political speech and opinions specifically.

“This legislation creates penalties for unpopular opinions and opens investigations into companies’ viewpoints, and that sets a dangerous precedent for New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas.” 

The bill passed the New Jersey Senate unanimously in May, but has not yet been voted on in the Assembly.

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