INTERVIEW: Know Your Rights with George Eklund from the ACLU!

For as long as I can remember, the ACLU has always represented the voice of reason and sensibility in a sea of otherwise madness. Fortunately, I’ve never needed to call on their organization, but I’ve always felt better knowing that they are out there, and perhaps never so succinctly as now, given the current political climate. Rather than assume what the ACLU does and why they have any value, I took the time to speak with one of the lawyers –George Eklund– at the Kentucky ACLU to learn a little bit more about what they do, your rights, and how you can help.

Never Nervous: For anyone that might not know, what does the ACLU do?

George Eklund: The ACLU of Kentucky is a 61-year-old organization in Kentucky that works to defend and preserve our civil liberties and rights through impact litigation, advocacy, and public education

NN: How did you become involved in the organization and what specifically do you do?

GE: Since the election, there has been an outpouring of support. We have tripled our membership and people are looking to get involved with our work. There are many ways to get involved. The first is that you can become a member of the organization and get in the loop of the work that we are doing. Also, we are always looking for members and supporters to take some ownership of our issues. We are looking for volunteers and supporters who we can help self-organize. The best way to get involved with us is by starting at here.

NN: Have you seen the ACLU grow over time? Is there any way to measure if there is more or less work now than under previous administrations?

GE: The ACLU has worked to hold all presidents accountable during its history. No president has been an exception. The ACLU has worked to hold them all accountable to the ideals enumerated in the constitution.

“Actions taken recently by the new administration have been a wake-up call for many people who see the groundwork being laid for the infringement of civil liberties that may have been taken for granted.”

The Membership of the ACLU has tripled in the Kentucky since the election. Actions taken recently by the new administration have been a wake-up call for many people who see the groundwork being laid for the infringement of civil liberties that may have been taken for granted.

NN: Does the ACLU take cases proactively, or does someone have to submit a case? For example, would the ACLU take up the case on abortion rights or the accreditation of the University of Louisville, or does someone need to, I suppose, request that?

GE: The ACLU does both in some ways. Our clients come to us in a variety of ways. If there is a person who believes that their rights have been violated then they can fill out the complaint form here and mail it to us at ACLU of Kentucky, attn: Legal Intake, 315 Guthrie Street, Suite 300, Louisville, KY 40202-3820.

NN: What rights do ordinary citizens have in a protest? How can we defend those rights?

GE: The right to assemble and the right to free speech are fundamental elements of our democracy. All types of expression are constitutionally protected in the public sphere, like streets, sidewalks, and parks.

Unfortunately, governments and police do infringe on this right through mass arrests, illegal use of force, and criminalization of protests. The best practices to protect yourself when encountered by police is stay calm, be polite, and don’t run. Don’t argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you are innocent or you believe that the police are violating your rights. Point out that you are not disrupting anyone else’s activity and that the First Amendment protects your actions. Ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, calmly and silently walk away.

“The best practices to protect yourself when encountered by police is stay calm, be polite, and don’t run.”

Do not resist arrest, even if you believe the arrest is unfair. If you are under arrest, you have a right to ask why. Otherwise, say you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Don’t say anything, sign anything, or make any decisions without a lawyer.

The ACLU Website has many great resources to know what your rights are.

NN: Generally speaking, is it legal for a state or federal agency to deny freedoms of speech to their employees, such as the restrictions that the Trump administration has put on various agencies?

GE: This is a very nuanced issue that I am not equipped to talk about. I would advise people to talk to an employment attorney.

NN: What state issues should we remain vigilant over in particular? Is there anything we need to consider in specific?

GE: There are many issues that we should be concerned about here in Kentucky. Three that I would pay particular attention to are the access to safe abortion services and reproductive health care, anti-LGBTQ legislation, and the right to privacy and policing.

The impediment to access to safe reproductive health care and access to abortion is a huge concern of ours and something that we are working on. We saw this with the passage of the ultrasound bill, the 20-week ban, and other measures that are still up for debate in the general assembly.

We are also concerned with the infringement of the rights of individuals that are LGBTQ, specifically the bills that resemble the North Carolina Bathroom bill and the right to discriminate bill. These bills pose both a risk for the individuals that would be impacted but also a risk to the economy of Kentucky.

I would also keep an eye out at policing practices in regard to electronic surveillance and privacy. The world of technology in our lives is an ever evolving arena and I fear that case law and policies to protect our rights have not kept up.

NN: Listening to a speech by Governor Bevin today, and he expressed his disappointment in Attorney General Beshear’s unwillingness to proceed with the ultrasound abortion bill. In particular, he seemed disappointed because of AG Beshear’s apparent dereliction of duty, an interesting juxtaposition given Bevin’s stance on the Kim Davis event. Can Beshear elect to not proceed with cases? Is he obligated to work the cases provided to him? Can any lawyer be put into that position, state employee or not?

GE: We can’t speak on pending litigation, So I am reluctant to talk about these things

NN: The most important question: How can ordinary citizens help the ACLU? Where can we donate and what does that money do to help? Is the ACLU publicly, privately funded through donations, or some combination of both?

GE: We need people to take ownership of civil liberty issues, to get involved and to speak out. This looks like donating your time and resources, helping organize a know your rights training or public education event, and staying involved and up to date on the current events and pressing issues in the commonwealth.

“We need people to take ownership of civil liberty issues, to get involved and to speak out.”

The ACLU is a privately funded organization. We do not receive any funds from the government for the work that we do. The donations of our supporters and members fund the work that we do here in Kentucky. This included public education events, Court cases, lobbying in Frankfort and other advocacy activities.

To donate or get involved, I would direct people to our website. There they can volunteer, donate, and learn more about the organization. I encourage people to also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.