Protecting Civil Liberties in the Age of Trump
Chris Ahmuty, retiring executive director of the ACLU, speaks out
Chris Ahmuty joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin in the 1980s and became its executive director in 1992, when the organization was focused on many issues we’re still addressing today—reproductive justice, LGBT rights, policing and criminal justice issues and freedom of speech. Ahmuty will be stepping down from his position as executive director at the end of this year. He spoke to the Shepherd last week about the ACLU’s battles, his thoughts on a Trump presidency and the spike in support for the ACLU. Here’s an excerpt of our discussion.
Shepherd: Locally, the ACLU has been very involved in police conduct. Why?
Ahmuty: For the longest time police abuse and misconduct has been on our docket. If you go back to before I was here, there was a lot of work on red squads, which were engaged in surveillance of people who were engaging in political protest, especially in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in Madison and Milwaukee. We’ve had a lot of concern about policing over the years. It really stepped up with Jeffrey Dahmer. You’ll remember that the Milwaukee police officers returned a young Lao boy to Jeffrey Dahmer and it raised all kinds of issues about the police interacting with minority communities, with the gay community. We were concerned about a number of things, but a common thread throughout that is what’s become known as racial profiling and a disproportionate amount of minority contact and the impact that various policing strategies or the aggregate conduct of police officers and the culture of the police department has had on life in the city of Milwaukee. And how, as in so many other ways, we have one standard for white people and another standard for people of color.
Shepherd: We’re having the same conversation today.
Ahmuty: Right. Nothing seems to have changed.
Shepherd: Has anything changed?
Ahmuty: I think some things have changed. There’s a greater awareness of diversity in the city as we’ve become a majority-minority city. And the Common Council has changed. But I think to some extent the old culture of the police department from the time of former Chief Harold Breier—there’s a residue, if you will. And that impacts policing in Milwaukee so that it’s difficult to move forward. When Chief Flynn came in in 2008, he came in espousing a philosophy based on broken windows and a strategy based on large numbers of pretextual stops [of drivers who have broken tail lights or other minor offences as a reason to search cars] and also increased use of data to in part determine structure and deployment decisions.
Shepherd: What are your biggest concerns about a Trump administration? There’s a long list of worrisome statements to go through.
Ahmuty: There is a long list and some of it is on the basis of what he said during the campaign and what he said post-election, including his appointments. There’s an ACLU document called the Trump Memos, and that was based on what he said during the campaign.
For instance he’s talking about surveillance of American Muslims, even like a registry or database of Muslims, that is if they are able to be in the country after a potential ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries. But to use religion as criteria to engage in surveillance of individuals—that should be seen as something that’s un-American, not just unconstitutional. Here you’re going to violate the due process clause. Of course it also violates the 1st Amendment, the establishment clause, because you can’t do things to support religion, but you also can’t go after a religion.
The other thing people should be concerned about is what’s happening at the federal level with surveillance, bulk collection, of our data from our emails and our Internet activity and telephone calls. After 9/11, even after Obama came in, things were not good. Things were pretty bad. Maybe a lot of people didn’t realize how bad things were until Edward Snowden revealed some of what was going on at the NSA. Things were not good.
But now you’ve given a system that’s fraught with actual violations of rights and what’s a Trump Department of Justice and national security apparatus going to do with that? Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, is up for reauthorization next year. The ACLU has been in court but also in Congress trying to get restrictions. Well, first, trying to find out more about Section 702 because it’s secret to a large extent.
Actually, this may be an area where there might be some members of Congress who are concerned about privacy, and the ACLU is hopeful about that. But even though Obama allowed a lot of this to go forward, you sort of had a sense that if there were something really awful, he would push back on that. You don’t get that sense with Trump.
Shepherd: Trump just said that those who burn the American flag should lose their citizenship. Can he make that happen?
Ahmuty: You can’t rip down somebody else’s flag and burn it, but if it’s done in a peaceful way it’s political expression, which the Supreme Court has upheld multiple times. The justices may not like it but they understand that political expression, even when it’s controversial, even when it’s offensive to many people, is central to our political culture. You can’t have the government deciding what people can say and do as long as it’s done peacefully and within certain time, place, manner restrictions. But he doesn’t even seem to understand that.
And lose your citizenship? You can’t treat citizenship so lightly that you can punish somebody by taking it away. That’s been undisputed for a century. But if you can believe what he tweets, it appears that he doesn’t really have an appreciation for these basic constitutional principles and who knows how many others.
Shepherd: Paul Ryan said he’s explaining the Constitution to Trump.
Ahmuty: Does Paul Ryan understand the Constitution? [laughs]
Shepherd: Trump has fanned the flames of white nationalists and others with abhorrent beliefs. How do we balance their freedom of speech with protecting the rights and security of those they hate?
Ahmuty: We’re trying to do a number of things. One is to support people who feel threatened. There are resources [on our website], whether you are Muslim or LGBT or an immigrant or a person of color, a woman, there is support for them. Among those people who are concerned are Dreamers who entered into the DAPA program and trusted the Obama administration to come forward and start a process and who knows what is going to happen to them now.
There needs to be a lot of support for people in jeopardy, but if it’s not violent conduct or harassment, people that say hateful things that are racially bigoted or have to do with religion or sexual orientation or whatever, they have a right to speak, too. Counter speech is the ACLU’s preferred method for dealing with that. We can balance those things. We can make sure that people are aware of the danger that speech can lead to violence, but that doesn’t mean that we want the government to censor it.
When the KKK says they are coming to town, for example, there are usually counter demonstrations. The ACLU participates in the counter demonstration, but also by providing legal observers. We had them before 2011, but with all of the protests in Madison and subsequent protests, particularly around police incidents in Milwaukee, we’ve really grown our legal observer program. Hundreds of people have volunteered to the ACLU of Wisconsin since the election, not nationally, but here. Since the 2016 election we’ve had over a thousand new members and hundreds of people who want to volunteer. Some of them may be involved in our longstanding legal observer program.