Wyoming will be the only state without a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union after the Cheyenne-based office closes April 10.
The closure is permanent. It comes after financial concerns and a round of layoffs at the national ACLU office in New York, which supported the Wyoming chapter.
Marsha Zeesman, deputy director of communications, said the national ACLU will maintain a presence in Wyoming through “restructured staffing.” It intends to continue taking on legal clients and cases in Wyoming through a national lawyer who would work with local counsel.
“On March 30th, 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union instituted a seven percent reduction in force and other cost-saving measures,” Zeesman said. “While the organization is financially healthy and is experiencing strong fundraising, these cuts are necessary in order to balance expenses and revenues, and to allow strategic growth in targeted program areas.”
Most states have a locally-financed ACLU chapter, but the national ACLU gave financial support to branches that are not self-sustaining. That includes offices in Puerto Rico and Wyoming, and a single office serving both North Dakota and South Dakota.
“We have been grateful for their support,” Wyoming ACLU director Linda Burt said. “Our concern is this work is not going to be passed on in Wyoming now, and there is not going to be anyone to pick this up at this point in time.”
The national ACLU didn’t contact the Wyoming office ahead of time to notify them of the closure or try to find a solution, Ron Akin, Wyoming ACLU advisory board chair, said. He reads the sudden closure as a message that “no one that cares about civil liberties in the state of Wyoming.”
The national office didn’t respond to the Wyoming board’s ideas to raise money locally to support its chapter, Akin said.
The Wyoming chapter’s budget for fiscal year 2015 was $360,000, Zeesman said.
“As a culture, when a group like the Wyoming ACLU leaves the scene, there is one less group that will stand up for people’s rights and civil liberties,” Akin said. “You just keep chopping at the tree and pretty soon it falls down without support of the limbs.”
The national ACLU directly employed three ACLU workers in Wyoming, who will be laid off April 10: executive director Linda Burt, attorney Jennifer Horvath, and program coordinator Ryan Frost.
Melanie Vigil, a 2014 UW graduate and former aide to Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) will continue work on a grant-funded ACLU project dealing with LGBT rights in Wyoming.
The closure ends the work of a chapter that worked on issues such as juvenile justice, prison reform, reproductive rights, and drug law reform. The chapter also did work on property rights and privacy, leading to what observers thought was a surprising alliance with the Wyoming Liberty Group.
“We certainly have a long history of addressing private issues, private property and personal privacy, and that’s where the Wyoming Liberty Group and the ACLU came together on those issues that we feel very strongly about,” Burt said.
Akin says many Wyoming residents don’t appreciate what the ACLU stands for. He’s heard people say of a Wyoming ACLU member, “We should drag him out and shoot him.”
“The ACLU gets beat up that it is a left-wing organization,” Akin said. “We’ve represented people like Rush Limbaugh. It is a whole spectrum of things.”
The Tea Party should mourn the loss of the ACLU in Wyoming, Akin said, because now its members and the NAACP will be among the only groups standing up for civil liberties.
The seeds of Wyoming’s ACLU chapter began in Natrona County in the 1940s. During the 1960s the group organized further to stop the “preventive” arrest and jailing of motorcycle gang members.
In the 1970s and 1980s ACLU litigation and lobbying in Wyoming came through the Denver Regional office. Stephen Pevar, now a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, worked for many years to improve free speech, religious rights, and medical care in Wyoming jails and prisons. Marv Johnson became Wyoming ACLU director in 1997, and Linda Burt came on as director in 2000.
In the 2015 Legislature the ACLU supported causes the group is known for nationally: LGBT rights, voting rights, marijuana law reform, and reproductive freedom.
The group supported successful bills to restore voting rights to non-violent felons, and decriminalize the use of hemp oil. Bills to ban LGBT discrimination in the workplace and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana failed.
The ACLU also aligned with the Wyoming Liberty Group to support privacy from drone surveillance and reforming property forfeiture laws in cases of suspected drug trafficking. Gov. Matt Mead (R) vetoed the asset forfeiture bill, and the Senate voted not to override the veto. The drone privacy bill did not pass.
In the future the Wyoming ACLU hoped to continue work on juvenile justice, following years of previous work on the issue. Wyoming legislative leaders chose juvenile justice as the top priority for the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee this year.
“One of the hardest things for me this week … is that when people ask us ‘Who is going to do this work and take it over?’ my answer in some cases is nobody, because we are one of the only organizations that do this,” Burt said.
Akin said the office’s closure is a “sad, black day” for Wyoming.
“There is a voice that has been silenced,” Akin said. “I will tell you the hatemongers in Wyoming will love it when they hear that news. They will be dancing in the streets from Cheyenne to Sheridan.”