Liberty Reporter, Spring 2024

May 10, 2024

Welcome to the newest issue of the new Liberty Reporter!

The goal of this newsletter is to keep you informed, inspired and empowered to be part of this work. Let it serve as a reminder, the ACLU of Mississippi is unwavering in our commitment to equity and equality for all.

From the Desk of Our Executive Director:

The 2024 Legislative session was not great. It was not terrible. There were more minuses than pluses.  But there wasn’t an all-out assault on the City of Jackson, voting rights, civil liberties, and reproductive rights, like we often witness.

Granted, that is a very low bar.

There was positive movement in some areas.  A bill to allow no excuse early voting passed the Senate but died in the House. House leadership said it needed more time to weigh the issue. Legislation that would have provided for automatic restoration of voting rights passed the House but was not even debated when it went to the Senate. We successively worked with House leadership to ensure that voters with disabilities could receive help from anyone they choose, when voting absentee.  Efforts to restore the citizen led ballot initiative process failed. But even if the cynically proposed House and Senate plans became law, Mississippians would have been stuck with a ballot initiative in name only. Good bills to protect reproductive privacy, expand hate crime protections for the LGBTQ community, and allow for online voter registration.

However, the Mississippi Legislature continued its normal practice of deferring action on real issues while going out of its way to harm trans Mississippians. According to the leadership of the Mississippi Senate, telling people what bathroom they can and cannot use is the most important legislation of the 2024 legislative session.

Not expanding Medicaid. Not funding education. Not repairing and replacing infrastructure.

No, the most important legislation, the SAFER Act, is a bill to police bathroom use. Or, as Senator Dean Kirby put it, "This is the SAFER Act and it's dealing with transgenders." Year after year, Mississippi lawmakers have made a priority, attacking the rights of transgender people's access to public spaces, basic services, educational institutions, and ultimately compromising the ability of trans people to survive. This year, legislators focused on governing who can and cannot enter bathrooms. Even after the bill unexpectedly died in a conference committee, legislators voted to suspend their normal rules and resuscitated the SAFER Act.

The SAFER Act has nothing to do with protecting women. The goal of this act and other anti-trans legislation is to stop people from being transgender.

Marginalizing underrepresented people through legislation isn’t new. The targeted groups sometimes change but the tactic is the same. And we should fight it like any other form of discrimination. Because, like everyone else, a trans student should be able to play sports, use the restroom, and participate in activities alongside their peers. They should be able to be who they are.

Jarvis Dortch, Executive Director

Liberty Reporter

In The Courts

By: Joshua Tom, Legal Director

Mississippi Supreme Court

In early Spring 2024, we completed two trials. In one, MS NAACP v. State Board of Election Commissioners, we are challenging several Mississippi House and Senate districts which were redrawn after the 2020 Census. The Legislature drew these districts in a way that diluted the voting strength of Black Mississippians or by predominantly focusing on race. We expect a decision in the summer of 2024. If we win, Black Mississippians will have a chance to elect several more of their preferred candidates to the State’s House and Senate. In the second, Rash v. Lafayette County, we are challenging Lafayette County’s overreach in restricting use of the town square for speech, assembly, protest, and other First Amendment protected activity like artistic events. The residents of Oxford and Lafayette County should have the ability to exercise their First Amendment rights in the town square like all Americans do.  

The Mississippi Constitution has a clear provision that the State cannot send money to private schools. On behalf of our client, Parents for Public Schools, we sued after the state did just that – they sent $10 million exclusively to private schools in 2022. Despite winning at the trial court, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in May 2024 that Parents for Public Schools did not have standing to challenge this unconstitutional appropriation of money. The Court was conspicuously silent on the merits, which clearly prohibit what the State did. Unfortunately, this ruling allows private schools to receive public money in violation of the Constitution.

In August 2024, we will go to trial in federal court in Oxford where we are challenging the districts by which Mississippi Supreme Court Justices are elected. Mississippi’s population is almost 40% Black. Yet in the 100 years that Mississippi has elected its Supreme Court, there have only been four Black justices to ever sit on that body, and never more than one at a time. The reason for this state of affairs is that the current Supreme Court districts dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians. If we win this lawsuit, we can literally change the face of the Mississippi Supreme Court by giving Black Mississippians a fair opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.

We continue to challenge unconstitutional policing. We have two lawsuits against the City of Lexington Police Department. LPD unconstitutionally arrested, jailed, and demanded illicit cash payments from our clients, Javarius Russell and Alexis Jew. The U.S. Department of Justice opened a pattern and practice investigation into LPD in 2023 based on credible evidence of unconstitutional policing by that department. We will continue to ensure police follow the law and treat people fairly.

Carrying the Torch: Fighting for Justice

By: Ayanna Hill, Constance Slaughter-Harvey Racial Justice Senior Staff Attorney

All of us have something unique that we each bring to a conversation, a vision, an environment, and or a movement. Our childhood, personal achievements, financial status, culture, and/or relationships grant us each the ability provide insight that is separate and distinct from anyone else. Throughout my journey, I have learned this and so much more.

As the first Constance Slaughter Harvey Racial Justice Staff Attorney, I have more questions than answers. In large part, I focus primarily on what I know I do best and what I have been taught to do well. In some instances, this means leaning into my auditory skills honed and developed over time through the recitation of poetry in front of my church congregation, my participation in debate tournaments, and my placement in oratorial contests. In other instances, this means reverting to the writing techniques taught to me in journalism and creative writing. In either case, what most shapes my viewpoint of racial justice is the observation of differing economic communities and other cultures both in and outside of the United States. It colors my lens of what racial justice means today as compared to yesterday. 

In honor of Constance Slaughter Harvey, I intend to carry the torch forward.  She is a daring, fearless, and bold woman. I say this with unwavering certainty, as I am sure it took courage to be the first African American female to hold a law degree from Ole Miss and to be the first African American judge in Mississippi. Such accomplishments blazed the path for me to hold the position I am in now. Her purposeful and well-intentioned actions give me comfort as I walk through the door of being the first, as well.

After all the work that Constance Slaughter Harvey has completed over the past 35 years, I appreciate the need to ensure that her work is not undone. Though Blacks are no longer segregated, discrimination persists in education, employment, voting, and housing. And the development of technology has provided our oppressors with additional tools to target and profile minorities. Most persistently, our criminal justice system continues to adversely impact minorities at much higher rates than whites. Therefore, my goal is to continue to push the needle toward reform in every way that I can. It is ultimately why I chose to join the ACLU of MS family. Unlike any other place, the ACLU fights for justice on all cylinders to include organizing, advocating, educating, and legalizing.

That's a Wrap: Legislative Wrap Up 2024

By: Dr. Ashley H. McLaughlin, Director of Policy & Advocacy

Mississippi Capitol

The 2024 Legislative Session at times seemed like a movie that would never end. While the ACLU of MS had set goals of promoting, defending, and extending civil rights and civil liberties to all Mississippians, many of the lawmakers were determined to harm them.  This year, our top priorities focused on censorship, equal access/equality for all, voting rights, protections, as well as governmental transparency and accountability. 

Most of the session was a back-and-forth battle to close the gap in health care, change the funding formula for schools, and fund state agencies. Sadly, each of these issues seems like a no-brainer when it comes to doing the right thing for the people you serve, yet there was strife. 

So how did it go for the ACLU of MS? There was a lot of watching and blocking. We sought to ensure that we got the best results on the many bills that were proposed, leaving us with a win and a loss.

To be clear, there were many small wins as a lot of bills died but with Medicaid failing, you wonder how much closer we are to a better standard for Mississippians.

One of the greatest setbacks was the number of attacks and promotion for a bathroom bill. While we understand that protection in a private space is necessary, we beg to ask whether the law provides meaningful protection. SB2753 (SAFER Act) was a blatant attack and public display of disapproval for transgender Mississippians. While the bill originally died, a Hail Mary attempt to revive it was successful.

While we can agree to have barriers to prevent individuals from abusing entry to bathrooms, the results of this bill are hateful rhetoric, unintended consequences, a hotbed for conflicts, and confusion.

Our win this session was in voting rights. The ACLU of MS participated in filing a motion in the courts to defend the rights of disabled voters. While no decision has been made in the courts, we are happy to say the legislature did the right thing by amending and supporting the Absentee Ballot law amendment, SB2425 (Ballot Harvesting), which allows disabled Mississippians to receive the assistance they want and deserve, while fulfilling their civic duty.

We must continually strive to search and advocate for reforms that benefit and protect the people. We will continue to search for opportunities that eliminate barriers to a better quality of life, as we evaluate the results of the session and begin planning for next year’s agenda. 

It is our continued goal to stand in the gap fighting for the civil rights and liberties of all Mississippians.

Fighting for LGBTQ Mississippians

By: McKenna Raney-Gray, LGBTQ Justice Project Staff Attorney

Mississippi is well known to be among the most socially conservative states, even compared to our Bible Belt neighbors, and queer and trans people have quickly become the favorite political scapegoat. Amidst societal nonacceptance and hostile policies, LGBTQ+ Mississippians encounter discrimination and legal roadblocks that cisgender and straight people in Mississippi do not. Mississippi was the last state to allow same-sex couples to adopt after a federal court case, and even today people still face housing discrimination, employment discrimination, or bullying and harassment in schools. That is all the more reason that we need strong advocates, as we do in the LGBTQ Justice Project.

Our work defending LGBTQ rights in adverse circumstances is building on past successes.

Legislative Policy

When each legislative session brings new attacks, we are here to analyze Mississippians’ rights in accordance with new anti-LGBTQ laws in this ever-shifting landscape. When the gender-affirming care ban for minors passed in 2023, we created a resource page to sort the myth from fiction and answer FAQ’s for parents of transgender teens. Now that the SAFER Act has passed, we stand ready to inform Mississippians about restroom access.

Legal Clinic

LGBTQ+ folks often benefit from services that take their needs into consideration. Our legal clinic pairs LGBTQ-identifying people with attorneys who are competent in LGBTQ issues related to family law, life planning, and name and gender marker changes. Last year, we launched a page for identity document resources with webforms to help people draft name changes. In less than a year, we’ve generated over 80 legal complaints (quadruple the number of documents drafted in the prior year.) To support this work, I now host a monthly Q&A for name and gender marker change questions to help ease the burden of interacting with the legal system as a self-represented litigant and provide support beyond creating their documents.

Dress Code Advocacy

Last year we filed a lawsuit for a trans girl in Harrison County School District who wanted to wear a dress to graduation. She was denied, but instead of attending her graduation, she went to Washington D.C. for the first-ever trans prom. L.B. said of the experience, “I had the opportunity to speak in front of hundreds of people, tell my story and shed light on how we can make a change in this world.” Clients say that just knowing someone will fight for them is lifechanging.

While some of our efforts may seem futile in today’s world, we should never give up on the basic rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Mississippians. And that’s why we keep fighting.

Funding the Future

By: Jacquelyn Agho, Program Manager

Funding the Future

Guess who came to dinner?

On March 19th, the ACLU of Mississippi held the inaugural fundraiser for our racial justice fund, the Liberty Circle. It was held at the lovely Orchid Bed and Breakfast in Jackson. The guests included a diversity of experiences and interests, but they were united in their fervor for making systemic change to eradicate the vestiges of white supremacy in Mississippi. We heard from our Legal Director, Joshua Tom who updated the attendees on the status of our racial justice legal cases. Civil rights attorney, Carroll Rhodes of the Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP, spoke about the history of redistricting in the state. He also detailed how the current lawsuit we are partnering on could make a huge impact in creating voter maps that actually reflect the voting power of Black Mississippians. Finally, we heard from State Representative Robert Johnson on how the success of the redistricting litigation could reshape the state legislature to make it more responsive to the needs of Mississippians in every area from health care to economic development. It was truly a night to remember!

You may ask, what is the Liberty Circle? Great question!

Well, the Liberty Circle is a fund that will support the necessary legal work to address the assaults on civil and voting rights. The impetus for the creation of the Liberty Circle was the onslaught of discriminatory state policies to disenfranchise Black voters in the state. The scale of these assaults requires a legal response to counteract the most detrimental impacts of these laws. In part, these funds will go toward a staff attorney position, the Constance Slaughter-Harvey Staff Attorney, whose work will be solely dedicated to handling the legal efforts to combat these injustices. Attorney Constance Slaughter Harvey was the first Black woman to receive a law degree from the University of Mississippi and the first Black woman to be appointed a judge in the state. This position is an honoring of Attorney Slaughter-Harvey’s sustained and indomitable fight against systemic racial injustice in Mississippi. We want to continue in that tradition and make even further strides in this battle.

Our donation goal is $60,000. We work diligently to earn your trust as donors and supporters of the ACLU of Mississippi. As such, it is our commitment to be good stewards of your donations to do the highest good for the most people. As one of our donors shared with us recently, “Your work is heroic. Thank you.” We want all of our supporters to feel just as proud to be affiliated with our organization.

ACLU-MS Partners with Department of Mass Communications at Tougaloo College to Provide Capstone Project to Students

By: Candi Richardson, Director of Communications and Community Engagement

Tougaloo Students

This spring, Tougaloo College reached out with an invitation to participate in a Campaigns Course Community Partnership, an opportunity for our organization to provide eight students with real world experience applying their coursework in public relations campaigns. We happily accepted. The process would involve application of the campaigns creation process: research, planning, implementation and evaluation.  

After meeting with ACLU-MS Director of Communications and Community Engagement, Candi Richardson, and Program Manager, Jacquelyn Agho, to learn more about organizational needs, the students were challenged to create advertising campaigns to increase volunteers, donors or members. They spent the next two months conducting research and evaluating our current communications platforms and strategies, from website to social media.  They used their findings to make recommendations and create a multi-platform awareness campaign.

We were blown away at the level of thoughtfulness, creativity and professionalism these students exhibited.  We plan to implement many of their suggestions for how we can more effectively connect with and engage college students.  You might also find some of their work, specifically videos, on our social media platforms in the near future.

The ACLU of MS is committed to expanding our presence in communities, in ways that positively enhance the quality of life of Mississippians.  Please send community partnership or sponsorship requests to Candi Richardson at