ACLU of Indiana celebrates 60 years of fighting for civil liberties

2013-03-23T17:30:00Z 2013-03-24T22:48:04Z ACLU of Indiana celebrates 60 years of fighting for civil libertiesSusan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com

After last week's settlement of a lawsuit claiming Griffith Public Schools violated First Amendment rights of three students, a longtime official with the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana declined comment on the case.

But he did address the continued need for the organization as it approaches its 60th anniversary.

"I hope we will be around for another 60 years," ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said. "We don't win all our cases, but our presence is extremely important."

Falk said the ACLU provides a place for Hoosiers to go when they believe their civil liberties to be at risk.

"Unlike states that have other public interest groups, we're pretty much it," he said of Indiana.

Falk acknowledges legal positions taken by the organization won't meet everyone's approval. That's because the organization protects the civil liberties of a diverse population.

"We exist for the NAACP and (opponents) and Planned Parenthood and right-to-life groups and children and prisoners and police officers," Falk said. "The most remarkable thing is that whenever anyone has a civil rights or constitutional issue, they contact us."

Without discussing the specifics of the Griffith case, where three girls were expelled for posting comments on Facebook alleged to be threatening, Falk said the general problem involves how to deal with the constitutional rights of children and the schools.

"Traditionally, schools take the position students in school have First Amendment rights but only if they do not disrupt the school environment," Falk said. "The problem is what does it mean to disrupt the school environment in the computer age."

Falk said the problem arises when students are punished for behavior that has nothing to do with the school.

"That's what these center upon — student expression," he said.

The ACLU of Indiana has its roots in freedom of expression as evidenced by its inaugural decades-long lawsuit against the War Memorial Commission in Indianapolis.

Just days before 70 professionals, looking to organize an Indiana chapter of the ACLU, were to meet at the Indiana War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis in October 1953, War Memorial officials responded to complaints by denying the chapter a meeting room.

Critics alleged the organization to be a front for communists, according to an article appearing in an ACLU newsletter.

The controversy led to a segment on Edward R. Murrow's television news program and a lawsuit arguing the denial of use of the War Memorial unconstitutional. Some 20 years later, the organization won its case.

Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU of Indiana, said more people are aware the group is not a radical organization or a front for some other kind of influence.

Henegar, a former deputy mayor of Indianapolis who has held various positions in state government, is new to the position, having been at the job for six months.

Henegar said she's gone from working for the government to suing the government but to the same end — ensuring the government is fulfilling its proper role and its potential under the Constitution.

Henegar, a lawyer, said a common misunderstanding of the ACLU is that "we have no other agenda than the Constitution and defending civil liberties."

"We're equally misunderstood," she said. "Everybody loves us and, on the other hand, everybody hates us."

Some issues arise in response to specific legislative action but others return decade after decade whether issues of free speech, privacy or due process, she said.

Alice Bennett, the newly elected ACLU of Indiana board president, has been active in the ACLU since 1960.

"I've always felt very concerned about people being able to be treated fairly," she said.

That includes support of the civil liberties of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, said Bennett, a retired biology professor and cancer researcher.

"We have to treat everyone in this country according to the rules and the Constitution," she said.

Bennett said her focus in the coming year is to increase membership and urge board members to "get out there and tell people what we do."

That's an order the newly elected president of the Calumet Chapter will likely endorse.

Bryan Bullock, an attorney in Merrillville, was appointed to the board last year and then ran for president of the Calumet Chapter.

Bullock said he has varied interests, including involvement with the NAACP and the Environmental Justice Partnership and other social justice organizations. He believes that will benefit his service on the ACLU board.

Several legislative bills have caught his interest, including requiring DNA samples from felony suspects and drug tests of people on public assistance, both affecting largely low-income and African-American communities, he said.

"I'm honored to be serving the Calumet Region on the board of the ACLU and reigniting the (Calumet) chapter," he said.

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