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SPOTLIGHT| American Civil Liberties Union

James Shaw has always put service to the community at the forefront of everything he does. Involvement with the American Civil Liberties Union is one of the services he finds most enriching. Here, he gives us a glimpse into the fuel behind his passion for the organization.

Please briefly describe the American Civil Liberties Union.

It’s a non-profit, non-partisan national organization founded in 1920 and dedicated to protecting the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments to the Constitution) from encroachment. It does this through litigation, lobbying, and education. It has been involved in a number of famous cases (the Scopes Monkey Trial, Brown v. Board of Education, and Lawrence v. Texas to name a few), but there are many less-famous victories. The first Florida chapter was started in Miami in 1955 by some of Miami’s most prominent citizens like Jack Gordon, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and Richard Wolfson. In 1965, the three then-existing chapters joined together to form the ACLU of Florida, which remains the ACLU’s Florida affiliate today. The ACLU of Florida has worked on such matters as Dade County school desegregation, fighting censorship of books from public libraries, securing juveniles’ rights to be represented by counsel in delinquency proceedings, voting rights – too many to list them all. Some more recent victories include protecting the rights of gay people to adopt children and having a Florida law declared invalid that required suspicionless drug testing for state employees and food-stamp recipients. Currently, the ACLU of Florida is fighting, on First Amendment grounds, a law that bans doctors from talking about gun safety to their patients. We also do some more modest things like produce literature that helps educate the public as to matters like the extent of photographers’ First Amendment rights to take photographs, the process by which people with felony convictions can have their voting rights restored, and the extent of students’ Constitutional rights while in school. Here in Tampa, our local chapter helped shine a light on systemic racial discrimination in school suspensions and the ticketing of bicyclists, prompting efforts to fix these problems. So, it’s an organization with a lot of people doing a lot of different things at once, but they’re all rooted in protecting the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It’s an organization that does some pretty incredible things.

Key Points

Where did you first learn about the ACLU?

I can’t recall specifically the context, but it was in high school. In college, I ended up being the guy who produced the daily news show for the college radio station, and I became much more deeply familiar with them by reporting on some of the cases and issues they were involved with and interviewing some of them for my radio show. I respected and appreciated both the contemporary work that they were doing and their place in American history, how they always seemed to be on the right side of every issue even if it wasn’t the popular side of the issue at the time.

What was it about them that piqued your interest?

As a seventeen-year-old, I was just impressed that there was an organization that existed with all these volunteer lawyers ready to rush in and defend people who were being denied basic freedoms and lacked the resources to defend themselves. I think I understood even back then that it’s very hard for people to protect themselves against unfair treatment without help from lawyers, and I also understood that the vast majority of people cannot afford lawyers. So, volunteer lawyers defending the defenseless appealed to me the way that perhaps Batman appealed to others. As I got older, I came to see that it was a lot more complex than that, that they were actually protecting the rights themselves from being slowly eroded away, and standing up for people was one of several ways to do that. It was thankless-but-essential work, and it impressed me that there were people doing it for no reason other than that they thought it should be done.

How did you initially get involved?

I wanted to join as soon as I got to law school. The law school I attended didn’t have a chapter, so a friend and I started one, which is still active today. During the summer between my first and second years of law school, I volunteered as an intern for the ACLU of Florida’s state office in Miami. It was a great experience.

How has your involvement changed over the years?

I gradually became more and more involved. I served as president of the law school chapter after the internship at the state office. When I moved to Tampa a few years into practice, I got in touch with the Greater Tampa chapter and discovered that a friend from the law-school chapter was working as regional counsel here, so she kind of pulled me in. I joined the Greater Tampa Chapter’s Legal Panel, and ultimately I became the Chair of that panel, which is the post I’ve held for about nine years now. The Legal Panel is a group of volunteer attorneys who meet regularly to review complaints and to act on the complaints that implicate one of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Sometimes, we file suit through cooperating counsel and litigate on behalf of the people who have complained to us. Sometimes, we can fix their problem with a letter or a phone call. They’re a great group of attorneys from several law firms around Tampa, and one of the best things about practicing law is getting to work with all of these great legal minds to do something good.

What do you find most challenging about your involvement with the ACLU?

A lot of people misunderstand the ACLU. Folks who aren’t familiar with our long history can easily mistake the defense of someone’s right to free speech for sympathy with the content of that speech, or they equate our opposition to government promotion of religion with prejudice against the religion that the government is trying to promote (even though we have a long history of vigorously defending the rights of all Americans to practice their religion). There’s even a movie out right now whose villain is an actor pretending to be an ACLU lawyer on some kind of anti-religious crusade, and sadly there will be people whose only exposure to the ACLU will be that movie. So, a lot of people have the wrong idea about what we do, and you find yourself having to explain a lot. But, it’s worthwhile work that none of us got into for applause, and the constant explaining is an opportunity to educate people.

What has been your most rewarding experience with them?

That’s hard to say. Maybe it was the lead-up to the 2012 Republican National Convention. The 2008 convention in St. Paul resulted in chaos and mass arrests, and we didn’t want that to happen in Tampa. The protesters thought that the police were going to beat them up or, at a minimum, try to silence them, and the police were concerned that the protesters would be violent and cause property damage or injuries. We didn’t have a battalion of people to help with this, but because we were an established and organization, the police respected us and the protesters trusted us, so we fell into this role of honest broker between law enforcement and protesters, which ended up giving us a lot of control in terms of setting the tone for the event. We did a lot of education – meetings, conference calls, webinars, that sort of thing – to make sure everyone was informed. Another attorney and I moderated a web-broadcast forum with representatives from the police, State Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, and City Attorney’s office to help educate protesters on what their rights were and were not. By the time the event came, a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation had taken over. The protesters were calling the police to tell them what they were going to do so the police wouldn’t be surprised. The police were deferential to the protesters and made a point of letting the protesters know that the police were there to protect them, not antagonize them. There were hardly any arrests. It was a shining moment for Tampa, and I like to think that our organization had a lot to do with making the event go smoothly.

What, do you believe, is the importance of this program?

Defending the Bill of Rights is essential. One way to think of the Bill of Rights is as a list of exceptions to the law of “majority rules” – a list of subjects beyond the power of even a unanimous majority. Even if the majority wants to do it, it can’t take away an individual’s right to speak freely, to practice her religion, to refuse to give testimony against herself, to be tried by a jury, to marry the person of her choice, to confront the person who accused her of a crime, and so forth. I question whether the Bill of Rights would pass today. The Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, during a brief window of time in American history when Enlightenment principles prevailed. Those principles don’t necessarily prevail anymore. I recently saw a YouTube video where a satirist spent an hour on the Yale University campus and got fifty people to sign a petition to repeal the First Amendment; the college students were persuaded that it’s important to protect others from upsetting speech, and they thought that repealing the First Amendment was an acceptable price to pay for that. The idea of fair treatment for people accused of crimes is losing support both from both ends of the political spectrum. A surprising number of people are now comfortable with the idea of using state power to promote their religions, which would have been an extreme minority position in 1791. So, in a way, the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are gifts from our ancestors who had the votes to pass it. If we lost any of those rights through slow encroachment, I’m not so sure we have the votes to get them back. That’s why it’s so important to protect them.

What steps should someone take if they are interested in getting involved?

The ACLU has chapters all over the country. There’s probably a local chapter in your city if you do an internet search for “ACLU chapter [name of your town].” Get in touch with them, and I promise you they’ll be more than happy to have your help.  If there’s no local chapter, find one or more like-minded people, contact your state affiliate, and ask about starting a local chapter. There are more passive ways to be involved, too. Like any nonprofit, the ACLU of Florida is always accepting donations, and there are e-mail listservs where you can be alerted about pending legislation and write to your elected representatives. In Florida, http://www.aclufl.org/ is a good place to start. There are links to local chapters, instructions for becoming a card-carrying member, lots of other information. And if you’re a person who has been deprived of a right and are looking for help, you can click here to submit a complaint.

Is there something you can share on a more personal level about your experience?

Seeing up close what the Bill of Rights – this 225-year-old document – can do for everyday people today is a personally enriching experience. Reading the letters that come in can definitely affect you on a personal level. You hear about a lot of the injustices that people quietly endure without anyone else noticing. We tend to think of our Constitutional rights as something set in stone that can’t be lost very easily, but the mail reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing, how easy it is for a piece of poorly considered legislation or the thoughtless act of a government official to cause someone to suffer extreme hardship. It can happen to anyone. You meet people who are willing to stand up, and prevail, against powerful adversaries, sometimes even at tremendous social expense to themselves, not just to protect themselves but to protect others from receiving similar treatment. It’s impossible not to be affected by that on a personal level. It makes the Bill of Rights more than just a document to you. You start to see it as a mutual promise to come to one another’s aid when we see someone else fall below what’s supposed to be a guaranteed minimum amount of dignity. Bringing the Bill of Rights into existence, and keeping it in existence, came at great cost. People have been willing to die for it. When you get to see it in action – how it can be invoked by even the weakest among us against even the most powerful among us – you understand why. Working with this organization has helped me to understand that in ways I don’t think I ever otherwise would have.

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