ACLU raising awareness of its mission

2013-10-20T00:00:00Z ACLU raising awareness of its missionSusan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com
October 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

As the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the organization joins ACLU affiliates nationwide aiming to be more proactive in its mission, Executive Director Jane Henegar said. 

The heightened visibility might account for what some erroneously believe to be increased litigation under Henegar's year-long leadership.

The former Indianapolis deputy mayor was named executive director of the Indiana affiliate last year, replacing retiring Executive Director Gilbert Holmes that September.

At the time, Henegar's appointment was said to build upon the Indiana affiliate's "Raising the Bar for Civil Liberties" campaign to expand the organization's capacity for education outreach and legal assistance throughout the state.

"That involves letting people know of the litigation we're working on," Henegar said in discussing the growing visibility of the organization.

The effort included hiring a director in charge of communications and education whose job it is to create more awareness of the work the organization is doing, she said.

Hence, the Indiana affiliate most recently lent its support to September's observance of Constitution Day since the document is a mainstay of the ACLU.

The mission of the ACLU of Indiana is to defend individual rights and enhance and preserve liberties grounded in the U.S. and Indiana constitutions and civil rights laws.

The day's ACLU-sponsored  programs reached more than 4,000 schoolchildren and is expected to be an annual event, Henegar said.

The organization also continued its award-winning "First Wednesdays" lunch-and-learn series, earning Indiana Bar Foundation's 2012 Law-Related Education Award. 

This October the 50-minute program tackled "The Rights of Children & Youth in the Modern Surveillance State."

At the same time, the affiliate helped spread the word of a recent free workshop on reproductive health sponsored by the Health Access and Privacy Alliance. The ACLU has taken a key role in litigating issues affecting Planned Parenthood, most recently a law passed during the last legislative session affecting medical versus surgical abortions.

Among lawsuits the affiliate filed this year are those on behalf of students with disabilities to bring service dogs to school, a Winamac girl who wants to play football and also to protect the free speech rights of panhandlers.

"Whether you agree or disagree with the positions they hold, they are certainly fervent and aggressive supporters of the constitutional rights of those who don't always have the opportunity to be heard," said longtime municipal government attorney David Hollenback, of Valparaiso.

"I think there's clearly been a decision made on the part of the ACLU (of Indiana) that they want to do two things," he said.

Hollenback said the increased public relations-style branding indicates the organization wants to get the word out they're here and vigilant in the pursuit of constitutional rights, and that they exist as an option for those believing they've been deprived of their civil rights.

Constitutional lawyer Ivan Bodensteiner, interim dean of the Valparaiso University School of Law, said the organization protects rights not always appreciated by citizens until they're lost.

"It's important we have an organization that views it as its job to be vigilant about constitutional rights and not allow them to slip away," Bodensteiner said. "I think it's a critical organization." 

"There isn't any one issue that rises to the top," said Henegar in discussing the breadth of issues the ACLU takes on, often those seen on the front pages nationwide and appearing to make for strange bedfellows.

While protecting the rights of Planned Parenthood advocates, the organization also protects the rights of those opposing abortion, she aid.

"Whether First Amendment, reproductive or privacy issues, racial justice, equal protection or due process, those are all our issues," she said.

"The biggest misconception is that we are somehow a partisan organization," she said. "We are nonpartison and protect the rights for everyone under our constitution."

Henegar said the organization has made incredible progress over the years, but there are always battles to be fought as the country elects new leadership.

"What's changed is the world is getting smaller," Henegar said regarding the technological advances. "The way we engage in the fights has to change."

Henegar, who grew up on a farm south of Bloomington, said politics was a fixture at the family dinner table. She later entered a career in government.

"I see the ACLU pursuing the same goals I ultimately did while working for government," she said.

Local officials last month also focused their attention on the importance of constitutional issues.

Lake Superior Court Judge Julie Cantrell coordinated September's Constitution Day observances except those sponsored by the Indiana Supreme Court.

"I think it's very important children of today are taught about the constitution, its importance in forming our country and its basis for the freedoms we all take for granted everyday," she said.

Lake Superior Court Judge John Pera, who participated in the eduational program at St. Mary Catholic Community School in Crown Point, said, "It's important we have these kinds of educational activities for children so that they can more appreciate the rule of law as adult."

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