Supreme Court Student Speech

In this April 4, 2021, file photo provided by the American Civil Liberties Union, Brandi Levy wears her cheerleading outfit as she looks at her mobile phone outside Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pa. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, June 23, 2021, that the public school wrongly suspended Levy from cheerleading over a vulgar social media post she made after she didn't qualify for the varsity team. 

I’ve never thought of civil rights as a road show, but in a state famous for a touring headless chicken and a celebrated traveling cannibal, anything goes.

Deborah Richardson, the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, is new to the state from Atlanta. She wants to make sure the ACLU isn’t new to people in small towns and community groups who feel unrepresented.

The Denver-based chapter is a force in Colorado courtrooms and the state Capitol, but Deborah insists civil liberties are important in the community and around kitchen tables, as well. It makes sense, then, that the tour is called “Expanding the Table for Justice.”

"It's quite evident that we are very strong in representing the rights and in upholding civil liberties and rights for all people," Deborah told me, "but we don't necessarily talk to them directly."

The ACLU, then, is working on a 60-day listening tour around the state, in-person and online, for Coloradans to bring their questions and issues. Organizations or local elected leaders can book a slot for Deborah and her team to come and listen by clicking here.

The team particularly wants to hear about community standards and practices around criminal legal reform, racial justice, reproductive rights, voting rights, disability rights, homelessness, immigrant rights, indigenous justice, LGBTQ+ rights and faith matters.

I told Deborah sometimes I like the ACLU and sometimes I don’t, depending on the person or issue they represent.

Bear in mind, the ACLU has defended the Confederate flag, the Ku Klux Klan, the tea party and Rush Limbaugh.

“For me, it's not about political views,” Deborah said. “It's about the issue areas and what systemic injustices are in those areas that need to be addressed through our political system.”

The ACLU won an 8-1 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 over a Pennsylvania high school's punishment of a freshman's series of f-bombs accompanied by a middle finger on Snapchat in response to not making the varsity cheerleading team. The civil liberties nonprofit wasn't defending the middle finger, but the girl's right to extend it off campus.

The ACLU of Colorado won a big endorsement last week when the U.S. Justice Department agreed that grownups and law enforcement in a Douglas County middle school have a duty to look out for the needs and safety of an autistic 11-year-old, not the child's job to look out for himself when he's emotionally triggered.

The case is wrenching, so don't watch this video available here if hearing a child scream in anguish is going to give you nightmares. At the same time, it reassured me I don't have what it takes to be a cop. 

Civil liberties and schools are a combustible political issue, as we witnessed last legislative session when Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod and Sen. Janet Buckner were forced to sideline their bill to restrict how kids could be treated by cops at school because of pressure from cops and school administrators. 

Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, pledges to be back next year with a bail reform bill to make sure petty offenses don't land poor people behind bars for the crime of poverty.  

The ACLU will stand with them, again.

That's bound to stir up the other side in Colorado, especially coming off the ACLU's high-profile opposition to Jack Phillips, the Lakewood baker who refused to make a cake to a same-sex couple in 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 overturned the state's case against on procedure but not on whether Phillips discriminated against the couple. 

The conservative Heritage Foundation think tank took the ACLU to task, after complimenting it on its record of taking on unpopular fights in the name of a greater good. The writer included Phillips among the greater good.

“If the American Civil Liberties Union means to become a litigation boutique for such causes, so be it,” wrote legal fellow Canaparo GianCarlo in May 2020. “But it should be prepared to surrender the goodwill that its long and storied history of integrity has earned it.”

Richardson said people can think what they want, but it doesn't change right or wrong in the eyes of the law.

"People have their own opinions, and I certainly understand how they base their opinions on their information and evidence that they received," Deborah said, after I asked her about conditional love the ACLU engenders. "But, you know, as I heard Dr. Fauci say a few months ago, there are a lot of different opinions, but there's only one fact.

"If you have special needs 10- and 11-year-olds who are being detained and taken to a juvenile detention, it's a fact their parents are faced with $25,000 bail. That's a civil liberties and a civil rights issue. That's not based on opinion, whether you think one side of the political system has an advantage over the other. That's about injustice. That is the test."

That's not a test that will start in a courthouse. It's a test of the law that will start in a schoolhouse in a fill-in-the-blank community. That's why Deborah wants the ACLU to be in more places than Denver.