Black Lives Matter in Our Courtrooms Too

July 28, 2016

When attorney Andrea Burton refused to take off a Black Lives Matter button in court, the judge locked her up.

By Mike Brickner 

This piece originally appeared at the ACLU of Ohio


Attorney Andrea Burton didn’t walk into a local Youngstown courtroom with a large banner or poster — she simply had a small metal button with the words “Black Lives Matter” on her lapel. That was enough for Judge Robert Milich to sentence her to five days in the Mahoning County Jail because she refused to remove the pin. While judges may have a great deal of discretion about what happens in their courtroom, this raises some significant questions and continues to highlight the need for a sustained movement for Black lives. 

Ms. Burton wore the button in the courtroom when representing her client two days earlier on July 20, without any incident. After that hearing, news reports indicate that the local prosecutor approached the judge and complained about the button. At the next hearing on Friday, July 22, Judge Milich requested Ms. Burton remove the pin. She refused to do so. 

Black Lives and Political Symbols

Judge Milich says he ordered Ms. Burton to remove the pin because it is “political speech” akin to wearing a button supporting someone for elected office. He said that as an officer of the court, Ms. Burton needs to remain neutral and not appear to be biased in any way. He also said, “There’s a difference between a flag, a pin from your church or the Eagles and having a pin that’s on a political issue.” 

This illustrates a deep disconnect with the message of Black Lives Matter. It is not a political slogan nor is it an endorsement of particular candidates for elected office. It is a statement that Black Lives Matter in our daily lives, and a recognition that Black people are systemically and historically denied the rights and privileges that every American should be entitled to. 

While Judge Milich may draw a distinction between a Black Lives Matter pin and an American flag or church pin, many people within the Black community would disagree. An American flag may be one person’s symbol of freedom and liberty, and Black Lives Matter may be a symbol of the same concepts for someone else. 

Making Black Lives Matter in Court 

It is especially critical that the message of Black Lives Matter be heard in our courtrooms. With the practically routine acquittal of countless police officers for violence against people of color and racial disparities in nearly every aspect of the justice system — including who gets bail, who is convicted of drug offenses, and who gets access to drug treatment — Black lives need to matter more in our justice system right now. 

The button itself did not distract from the court proceedings until the prosecutor complained about its presence. It raises the question that if Ms. Burton were wearing a Fraternal Order of Police button supporting her local police union or a Fraternal Order of the Eagles pin, would the prosecutor have spoken out and would Judge Milich have had the same reaction? 

Finally, the sentence itself seems excessive in this instance. Here in northeast Ohio, we have had police officers who killed a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in Cleveland and served no time in prison or jail. And now we have one attorney who dared to wear a Black Lives Matter pin who will spend five days locked up. If that isn’t a stark visual as to the problems with our justice system and valuing Black lives and Black existence, I don’t know what is.

Mississippi Establishes Restraint and Seclusion Policy

July 27, 2016

By L. Rene’ Hardwick, Ph.D., Advocacy Coordinator

Mississippi is no longer one of a handful of states lacking a policy regulating the use of restraint and seclusion in schools and learning environments.

This spring, the ACLU of Mississippi was successful in reigniting stalled efforts to push for guidelines on the minimum standards for restraint and seclusion in public schools. As a result, the Mississippi Department of Education established policy 4013 as Rule 38.13 Restraint and Seclusion. This is in large part due to our advocacy and collaborative efforts with a number of organizations across the state, including Concerned Citizens Group and others. 

The updated policy regulate when and how public school employees can use force to handle student behavioral issues. It emphasizes prevention as the foundational framework by incorporating the data-driven Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach. In addition, it clarifies training requirements for employees, establishes statewide data collection and public reporting mechanisms, but still allows for the use of seclusion.

While it is not the ideal policy in regards to ensuring the safety, respect, and dignity of all children and school personnel, it is a step in the right direction. The progress that has been made is a direct result of the effective leadership of state Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright and likeminded individuals working together for a common goal and purpose.

Moving forward, we maintain our defense position. The ACLU of Mississippi will continue to be watchful in ensuring the effective implementation of Rule 38.13. As we look ahead to the 2017 legislative session, we will work towards establishing mandates to ensure further regulations and protections against the disproportionate use of restraint and the prohibition of seclusion to keep all children safe. 

It has always been the goal of the ACLU of MS to ensure the safety and the rights of all students and school personnel when seeking to manage even the most challenging and disturbing behaviors in schools and learning environments.  This is our task and in Mississippi, today, we are a step closer to reducing and restricting the use of restraint and seclusion, a step higher towards positioning all of our children to rise!

See the MDE Restraint and Seclusion Policy here.

Congress: Enjoy Your Recess, But Here Are Six Police Reform Bills You Must Pass In September

July 20, 2016

Congress has immense power to help reform police practices nationwide. There is no time to waste.

By Kanya Bennett, ACLU Legislative Counsel


This week, we continued to mourn the loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers. But the reality is that we've been in mourning for victims of color of police violence for a long time: Anthony Hill (Ga.), Laquan McDonald (Ill.), Freddie Gray (Md.), Aura Rosser (Mich.), Michael Brown (Mo.), Eric Garner (N.Y.), Tamir Rice (Ohio), Walter Scott (S.C.), Sandra Bland (Texas), Antonio Zambrano-Montes (Wash.), and Dontre Hamilton (Wis.).

Members of Congress: These are your constituents. These are lives that matter to families, friends, and communities, and they should matter to you too. This is why we say their names.

We have a crisis on our hands. Excessive violence, including fatal police shootings of people of color, must end. We have been focused on bad apple cops when we really need to focus on reforming an entire system. Fairness and justice demand that we act in this moment.

Congress serves an important function in building trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The federal government annually provides billions of dollars and resources to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Where is the guidance and accountability?

And advancing legislative reform is not an attack on law enforcement. It is clear that current policing strategies are not working. But while the relationship between law enforcement and many communities of color is broken, we have to believe it is not be beyond repair. Both constituencies should want intervention.  

The ACLU sent a letter requesting that Congress take up six bills that could take the first steps to repair the relationship between community and police:  

The Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act (H.R. 2875, S. 2168), sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), provides law enforcement with resources for accreditation, best practices, training, and other resources to increase trust between police and community. The bill also mandates data collection on use of force and other police-community encounters, so the public can begin to know what policing looks like in this country. 

The End Racial Profiling Act (H.R. 1933, S. 1056), also introduced by Rep. Conyers and Sen. Cardin, prohibits federal, state, and local law enforcement from engaging in racial profiling and other biased policing. The bill would help law enforcement meet this mandate through training, funding, and data collection. As the Department of Justice formally acknowledged at the end of June, “most people experience some degree of unconscious bias.” Implicit and explicit biases have no place in policing.    

The Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act (H.R. 5221), sponsored by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), would require police to be trained on de-escalation techniques that focus on preserving life. The legislation builds upon Police Executive Research Forum guiding principles on use of force and its belief that “the preservation of life has always been at the heart of American policing.” 

The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1232, S. 1441), offered by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would prohibit the transfer of some of the most dangerous  military weapons from the federal government to state and local law enforcement. Tanks, grenades, bayonets, and other weapons of war have no business in our communities.      

The Police CAMERA Act (H.R. 1680, S. 877) is sponsored by Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and provides federal resources to state and local law enforcement so they can develop safe and effective body-worn camera programs that also protect civilians’ privacy rights. Communities and law enforcement agree that cameras can be a part of the solution, but they must be implemented the right way. 

The DUE PROCESS Act (H.R. 5283, S. 3045) is a response to the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The bill levels the playing field for individuals who want to challenge law enforcement’s seizure of their property by providing access to counsel, an increased burden of proof for the government, and other procedural protections. 

It’s time that Congress becomes a part of the solution, or it will continue to be a part of the problem. When Congress returns from recess in September, they must get to the business of police reform.  

See blog here:


ACLU of Texas Response to Dallas Police Shootings

July 12, 2016


HOUSTON – Last night, police officers in Dallas were gunned down while protecting community members exercising their right to protest peacefully. The protesters were publicly challenging the epidemic of Black men being killed by individuals wearing the same uniform as those safeguarding the peaceful protest. If the night had gone as the protesters and police planned, this would have been a demonstration of what makes our country great: a citizenry publicly proclaiming their objection to government wrongs, and public officials protecting the citizenry’s constitutional right to air their anger and disapproval. Tragically, this quintessential example of democracy was ripped apart, and the nation awoke today to learn of more shootings and more deaths. 

We are reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.” Over the past three days, the body count has risen to seven. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—whose deaths people filled the streets of Dallas to protest—did nothing to warrant their deaths. The five Dallas police officers did nothing to warrant their deaths. Add to that the more than 50 officers killed in the line of duty and the 121 Black people killed by law enforcement earlier this year, and it’s clear that the violence is escalating. How much is enough? 

We call on the mayors of Texas cities to meet this crisis head on: Bring together the heads of law enforcement agencies committed to protect and serve, the leaders of organizations who fight for equality and justice, and local activists who work daily to defend vulnerable communities across this state. The time is now for a deliberate and substantive dialogue aimed at building trust and solidarity among all Texans. We must work together to ensure the senseless violence the nation witnessed this week—and over the past year—is met with reason, honest reflection and action. We cannot wait a moment longer to start this journey. 

This press release is available at:


ACLU Statement on Alton Sterling

July 12, 2016

BATON ROUGE — Details surrounding the shooting last night of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, continue to emerge. In reaction, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman issued the following statement: 

“Alton Sterling was shot to death while he was on the ground and two police officers were on top of him. Sadly, Mr. Sterling is the 122nd Black person to be killed by U.S. law enforcement this year. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and the city of Baton Rouge. 

“As we await a full accounting of the shooting, questions abound: Why did the officer shoot—multiple times—when Mr. Sterling was already being subdued? How did Mr. Sterling end up with gunshots in his chest and his back? What happened to cause both officers’ body cameras to fall off during the same incident? 

“Whatever the answers to these specific questions may be, they will not explain or excuse the continued use of excessive force by law enforcement officers across the country, particularly against people of color. We stand in solidarity with Mr. Sterling’s family and look forward to answers from the Department of Justice’s investigation of the shooting.”

ACLU Statement on Philando Castile Killing

July 12, 2016

"We are grateful to Diamond Reynolds for her courage in sharing the video of Philando Castile's brutal death, and our thoughts are with her, her family, and the rest of Mr. Castile's loved ones.

"Philando lost his life last night for no reason, shot to death in front of his girlfriend and her child. We mourn him today because the police failed to protect and serve him. If they had done their job, he would still be alive. 

"Philando became the 123rd Black person to be killed by U.S. law enforcement this year. We know there is a better way to police, an approach that doesn't leave us with disproportionately high numbers of people of color injured and dead. 

"The ACLU of Minnesota joins the NAACP, and others in their demand for an independent investigation of Philando's killing by a truly independent entity. We do not believe that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is that independent entity because the recent history of the BCA suggests that it is incapable of conducting a thorough and objective investigation into this tragic event." 


Philando Castile Should Still Be Alive

July 12, 2016

I knew Philando Castile, and he was a beautiful human being who was stolen from us by a policeman’s bullets.

By Jana Kooren


Philando Castile should still be alive. 

Mr. Phil (as he was known at school) worked at my son’s elementary school in the cafeteria. My son started pre-K this fall at the tender age of four. First thing he did every morning was walk in and get breakfast. He had never eaten in a cafeteria — he didn’t know the routine — and from day one Mr. Phil made him comfortable. I would often walk in with my son and had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Phil many mornings. 

Within a week Mr. Phil knew my son’s name, despite the fact that there are hundreds of kids in the school. He would always make sure he actually took the food he was supposed to take, and he would often let him take an extra item if he was really hungry. 

Mr. Phil’s life mattered. It mattered to his friends, to his family, and to the hundreds of students at J.J. Hill Elementary. It should matter to all of us as a society. It should matter that another Black man was senselessly killed at the hands of people who are supposed to protect us.

I can’t get his picture out of my head, smiling from next to the breakfast cart, greeting my son. I shouldn’t have to live on memories. He didn’t need to die.

I shouldn’t have to tell him that Mr. Phil was killed by the police for no reason. I shouldn’t have to explain that the people charged with protecting us all too often end up killing people with brown skin. 

My son is mixed; his dad his Black. He will learn that his skin color makes people unjustifiably scared of him. He might soon have to fear that his dad will be shot while he is in the backseat. Tonight, I will probably sneak in bed with him, cuddle up next to him, and just be with him — as I’ve done every night since Mr. Phil was stolen from us. But my husband and I can’t put off talking with him forever. We will talk with him and struggle to find the right words. I will probably start crying which will upset my son, but I will have to be there for him as he tries to make sense of all of this violence.  

In many ways I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work at the ACLU and spend all of my working hours fighting for justice. The day after his shooting I could go to the protest for hours in the morning for work. I could take action through the ACLU, in our call for an independent investigation. I could spend my day writing these words and spend time processing my grief. While most people don’t do this for their profession, we can all contribute to the cause in our own way. 

Mr. Phil was a good man. I’m not saying this to justify why he shouldn’t have been killed because I believe that even the people who the media try to paint as bad people don’t deserve to die unjustly at the hands of the police. I’m saying it because it is what I know about Mr. Phil. 

Mr. Phil will be remembered by his friends and families and the thousands of students whose lives he positively impacted as a kind, caring, and thoughtful man. It is just terrible that all we have now are memories.  


Judge Strikes Down Anti-LGBT Bill in Mississippi Hours Before It Becomes Law

July 01, 2016

ACLU Celebrates Decision in Cases Brought By Civil Rights Advocates

CONTACT: Zakiya Summers | | 601-354-3408

JACKSON, Miss. – In the early hours of the morning, a federal judge struck down the entirety of an anti-LGBT measure that was slated to become law today. The law would have allowed public officials and businesses to refuse to serve LGBT individuals. The ACLU and the ACLU of Mississippi challenged the constitutionality of HB1523 in a separate lawsuit, Alford v. Moulder.

ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins said the following in response:

“We are thrilled that Judge Reeves ruled on the right side of history in striking down House Bill 1523 and congratulate our allies who brought these cases. This is a huge victory for the state of Mississippi and the nation. The federal ruling clearly states that HB 1523 is unconstitutional, and now this discriminatory law that unfairly targeted LGBT people will not go into effect. One religious view of marriage should not preclude all others or federal law. 

“The Supreme Court made it clear one year ago that same-sex couples ought not be treated any differently than different-sex couples. HB 1523, on its face, created a separate system for our clients, Nykolas and Stephen, and for all LGBT Mississippians. That is discrimination, plain and simple.” 

“While we celebrate this win in the short term, the battle continues to secure full equal rights for LGBT people. The ACLU of Mississippi will continue to stand firmly against discrimination and in solidarity with the LGBT community. We remain vigilant in the fight for equality and justice for all.”

The two cases that were considered were Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, brought by the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Mississippi Center for Justice.The ACLU and ACLU of Mississippi filed one of the other lawsuits brought to defeat HB1523, Alford v. Moulder. The suit targets the Registrar of Vital Records and was filed on behalf of ACLU of Mississippi members and Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas, a gay couple who are engaged to be married and face discrimination as a result of this law.

Read more about the ACLU’s case here:


Your Favorite Website Might Be Discriminating Against You

June 29, 2016

By Noa Yachot, Communications Strategist, ACLU

Lemon curd recipe posting on Facebook

It can be pretty convenient when Facebook processes the gargantuan amount of personal data it has to you to show you ads for the precise lemon curd recipe you never knew you were craving. 

But what are the harms associated with this kind of targeting? It’s hard to answer that question — because an overbroad law actually prohibits the kind of studies best positioned to figure it out.

The implications go far beyond dessert — studies have shown that people are being treated differently online based on their race, actual or perceived. Websites have been found to use demographic data to raise or lower prices, show different advertisements, or steer people to different content. 

The consequences are real. Big data has resulted in people of color, or people who live in communities of color, paying more for car insuranceand being more likely to see ads for predatory loans.

One recent study by Harvard computer scientist Latanya Sweeney found that searches for names typically associated with Black people were more likely to bring up ads for criminal records. 

Screenshot of a Boston Globe article titled 'Racial bias alleged in Google's ad results'

Another study found that Google showed ads for higher-paying executive jobs to users it presumed to be men. 

Screenshot of a Washington Post article titled 'Google's algorithm shows prestigious job ads to men, but not women. Here's why that should worry you.'

These examples are likely just the tip of the iceberg — but there’s so much we don’t know because the algorithms that advertisers use to target internet users are secret, as are the detailed profiles that big data brokers amass on ordinary people (and then sell to those advertisers).

To make matters more complicated, a law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes it illegal to do much of the work that’s required to uncover discriminatory practices online. The CFAA creates severe civil and criminal penalties for people who violate websites’ “terms of service” — all the fine print you never actually read that websites make you agree to. Internet activist Aaron Swartz was charged under that law and faced decades in prison before he took his own life in 2013.

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

Many terms of service governing the use of a website prohibit the use of automated technology and the creation of fake user profiles, which are the kinds of methods researchers rely on to audit algorithms and publish their results. If they can’t do that kind of research, we can’t know whether the algorithms that deliver content are discriminating against us. 

Prison bars appearing over a researcher at a computer

Is algorithmic discrimination the redlining of the 21st century?

For much of the 20th century, the federal government refused to guarantee mortgages in communities where people of color lived, and banks refused to lend in these neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were literally outlined in red on maps, hence the term redlining. 

Map illustrating Manhattan neighborhoods that were redlined

Families of color still feel the impact of being denied mortgages for decades. In general, they have inherited less wealth because the absence of credit meant homes in these neighborhoods were worth less, and these homes continue to be worth less, contributing to the racial wealth gap. As a result, they have also been denied access to high quality schools, adequate transportation, employment, and environmentally safe neighborhoods.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining, along with other forms of housing discrimination, illegal. To make sure landlords and real estate agents are following the law, fair housing testers of different races apply for housing, seeking to make sure that testers of color are treated the same as white testers.   

Black family in front of house with 'for sale' sign fading to white family with 'sold' sign

Just as offline fair housing testing is crucial for discovering housing discrimination, robust online testing will be necessary to ensure that these protections are extended to the internet, too. Government agencies should require websites — especially housing providers, employers, and lenders — to audit themselves to ensure that they are not discriminating and should encourage researchers to regularly test and monitor algorithms to be sure they’re treating everyone fairly. It is outrageous that the CFAA prohibits so much of this work. It’s also unnecessary — it’s entirely possible to permit civil rights testing without opening the door to fraud.

The ACLU is challenging the CFAA to ensure that researchers and journalists aren’t thwarted from pursuing valuable research and investigations to determine whether inequality is baked into the algorithms that increasingly govern our world. 

A white hand on a computer mouse side by side with a black hand on a computer mouse


The next generation of civil rights testing will need to happen online. Without this kind of research, we’ll have no way of knowing whether websites are selling or advertising goods and services in a way that exacerbates existing racial disparities. 

For more on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, read our Free Future post, "ACLU Challenges Computer Crimes Law That is Thwarting Research on Discrimination Online."

Seeking Justice For Tamesha Means

June 28, 2016

By Brigitte Amiri, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Tamesha Means

I was honored to be in court representing Tamesha Means, a woman who was denied appropriate care during her miscarriage at a Catholic hospital. Ms. Means’s water broke when she was only 18 weeks along, and she rushed to the only hospital in her community, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan. 

Shockingly, she was turned away.

The doctors never told Tamesha that her pregnancy wasn’t going to make it and that the safest course would be to terminate the pregnancy. This scenario played out two more times — Ms. Means coming to the hospital in pain, bleeding, and developing an infection — only to be refused treatment.  It wasn’t until she started to deliver while she was being discharged that the hospital finally admitted her.

The reason Ms. Means received improper care was not because of a doctor’s mistake or an accident by the hospital. Instead, the hospital was simply following the rules — rules set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that prohibit Catholic hospitals from providing an abortion, even if the woman’s life is at risk.

On behalf of Ms. Means, we brought suit against those who set the policy that prohibited the hospital and the doctors from providing the appropriate care to Ms. Means. The district court dismissed the case, holding in part that the religious affiliation of the hospital policymakers gave them a free pass to harm patients.  We appealed that decision, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard our case

We hope the court will allow us to continue the case to hold those accountable who harmed Ms. Means.  I hope the court will agree that it is wrong for any entity — religious or not — to prohibit hospitals and doctors from providing abortion to a woman in an emergency while she is miscarrying and developing a life-threatening infection.  We are seeking justice for Ms. Means in this case, but countless others have been harmed. Indeed, we have heard from numerous women who have been denied miscarriage care at Catholic hospitals, and we expect to hear more given that the number of Catholic hospitals continue to rise

Right now, one in six hospital beds is in a Catholic facility. It is devastating enough to lose a wanted pregnancy — that devastation should not be compounded by the hospital’s refusal to provide appropriate care and endanger your health and life. We’ll continue to fight until no woman has to fear she’ll be turned away from a hospital during her time of greatest need. 

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