ACLU of Oregon Blog

Death Penalty - The Enduring Failure to Protect Against Racism

By Jeffrey Ellis, Director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center

Twenty five years ago this week in a case entitled McCleskey v. Kemp, the United States Supreme Court was faced with disturbing proof that race influences who is sentenced to death in the United States. In Georgia, where the case originated, black defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as white defendants charged with killing black victims. This prompted Justice Brennan to write:

"At some point in this case, Warren McCleskey doubtless asked his lawyer whether a jury was likely to sentence him to die. A candid reply to this question would have been disturbing. First, counsel would have to tell McCleskey that few of the details of the crime or of McCleskey’s past criminal conduct were more important than the fact that his victim was white….In addition, frankness would compel the disclosure that it was more likely than not that the race of McCleskey’s victim would determine whether he received a death sentence…  Finally, the assessment would not be complete without the information that cases  involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other racial combination of defendant and victim. The story could be told in a variety of ways, but McCleskey could not fail to grasp its essential narrative line: there was a significant chance that race would play a prominent role in determining if he lived or died."

Although our criminal justice system aspires to be color blind we are tethered to our unfortunate history of racism.


Racial Profiling Hurts Everyone, Regardless of Color

On April 2, 2012, the Community Alliance of Lane County hosted a Justice for Trayvon Martin rally at the Wayne Morse Plaza in downtown Eugene. ACLU of Oregon co-sponsored the event which called for an end to racial profiling. Here is the speech that Claire Syrett, Field Director for ACLU of Oregon, gave at the rally.

I want to thank the Community Alliance of Lane County for organizing this vigil and for all the important work that the Back to Back program does in our community. I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon about the Trayvon Martin case which has sparked such a strong reaction across the country.

I want to be clear that the ACLU is not seeking to pass judgment on George Zimmerman – we are not in a position to know all the facts in this case. We are pleased that there is a special prosecutor investigating, and it is up to the federal and Florida state authorities to decide whether or not to charge Mr. Zimmerman with a crime. If he is charged with a crime, he should be afforded the full criminal due process rights we all expect of our criminal justice system, including that he is assumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise.


ACLU Foundation of Oregon Wins Public Records Case Against Jackson County Sheriff

By Lauren Cullop and David Fidanque

Government transparency, including the ability to inspect public records, is a critical element of a functioning democracy. This is especially true when public records involve issues of civil liberties. What happens, then, when a public agency makes accessing those records cost-prohibitive? The ACLU Foundation of Oregon recently found itself in this situation, and successfully fought for greater accessibility to records the public has the right to see.


Oregonians Stranded in Libya Return, But No-Fly List Continues Rapid Growth

By Ben Bronner, Volunteer

The ever-growing no-fly list continues to take its toll on American citizens. Its latest victims are Oregon residents Jamal Tarhuni and Mustafa Elogbi. While Tarhuni and Elogbi were traveling separately, their stories share many similarities. Both men traveled to Libya in the fall. Both attempted to return to the United States in January but were not allowed to do so. And both report being interrogated about their religious beliefs and Libyan contacts at the behest of the US government. It’s cases like these that illustrate the importance of the ACLU’s ongoing efforts to increase the transparency of the no-fly list and the policies surrounding it.


Students Not Required to Participate in the Pledge of Allegiance

By Emily Garber

FlagReciting the Pledge of Allegiance during morning announcements is just part of the school-day routine for many students. Yet, for other students, the choice to remain seated and silent during the Pledge is an important exercise of their rights to freedom of speech and religion. Jeff Mason, a fifth grade teacher at Highland Elementary School in Reedsport, Oregon, battled for his students’ right to remain respectfully seated during the Pledge for twelve long years before he called the ACLU of Oregon. Although federal law, Oregon law, and Reedsport School District policy all prohibit compelling public school students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, faculty and staff members at Highland Elementary School routinely forced their students to stand during the daily recitation of the Pledge, singling out students for public embarrassment if they attempted to invoke their right to remain seated.


An Open Letter - A Request for Details and Early Release of Joint Terrorism Task Force Report

January 24, 2012

To Mayor/Police Commissioner Sam Adams,Chief Mike Reese and members of Portland City Council:

In late April 2011, the Council adopted a Resolution outlining its understanding of how the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) will, in limited circumstances, cooperate with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Part of that resolution declared that the Chief will present an annual report to Council every year in January. We understand that the Mayor has proposed a resolution giving the Chief until the end of February to present the report. We, the undersigned, request that the report be released in draft form at least two weeks prior to any formal presentation to City Council to allow public input. We continue to urge the City to fulfill the promise of that part of the resolution, to ensure transparency and to assure the people of Portland that our officers are in compliance with state and federal laws regarding gathering information for legitimate criminal investigations. In addition to the five points outlined by the ACLU of Oregon in their testimony to Council (and repeated in a June 24 letter to Council), we request an update on the security clearance status of the Mayor, Chief, and any officers or supervisors in the Bureau who are working with the JTTF.


Ten Years of Guantánamo

By Claire Syrett, Field Director

OSU Guantanamo ProtestJanuary 11, 2012, marked a somber anniversary – the arrival of the first prisoners to Guantánamo Bay prison 10 years ago. It is shocking to realize that there are men who have endured 10 long years incarcerated in our very own American gulag. It is especially shocking when you consider that only four of 779 men held there have received even the semblance of a trial. Now we wait to see how long the remaining 171 men still held there will remain in legal limbo. Will it be another 10 years? 20?

For those Americans who stood up to protest Guantánamo on this anniversary of its opening the answer is clear; Guantánamo must be shut down now. I raised that rally cry at a demonstration in Corvallis organized by the local Veterans for Peace group among others. The sight of a line of orange jump-suited “prisoners” wearing black hoods parading through downtown and onto the Oregon State University campus drew plenty of attention. More importantly this and the many other protests held around the country served to remind Americans that it is past time to close this terrible chapter of American history and recognize the constitutional and human rights of those still held there.


Bill of Rights Day

The first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, which became known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified on December 15, 1791. These amendments were designed to limit the government’s ability to infringe on individual liberty. Today’s celebration will mark their 220th anniversary.

Collectively, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights trumpet our aspirations for the kind of society that we want to be. For much of our history, our nation failed to fulfill the promise of liberty for all people living in the U.S. We have learned that the Bill of Rights is not self-fulfilling. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded to work to ensure the promise of the Bill of Rights is made real.

In a sense, every day at the ACLU is a tribute to the Bill of Rights. For over ninety years, the ACLU has worked daily in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Bill of Rights guarantees. Here in Oregon, our work in 2011 included standing up for free speech and free exercise of religion; privacy; fair treatment whenever the loss of liberty is at stake; and protection against discrimination.


Defending Banned Books.....Again

By Sarah Armstrong, Outreach Coordinator

In Oregon, people not only enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also a more broadly interpreted “freedom of expression” in the state constitution. Oregonians have repeatedly said they do not want government deciding what they can read, see or hear - so naturally, we love Banned Books Week! It is the perfect opportunity to exercise two of our most fundamental rights: the freedom of speech, and the right to assemble.


Breaking Gender Barriers: Justice Ginsberg & Justice Roberts

This month ACLU of Oregon celebrates the anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court while noting with sadness the passing of Betty Roberts, the first woman to be appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court. These two remarkable women have contributed to the betterment of our Nation and State by speaking out for those who have been and are currently being denied basic civil rights.