Thursday, August 25, 2011

University of Wyoming Student Chapter Launches Wednesday

Students from the University of Wyoming, University of Wyoming College of Law, and Laramie County Community College met last night to form the student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union at UW.

Meeting attendees represented a diversity of majors and colleges. Matt Pennell, a student at the UW School of Law and former ACLU intern, explained the chapter's mission, goals, and connection with the state and national ACLU organizations. Alex Brink, a former ACLU intern and key organizer of the inaugural chapter, described how the chapter will function, who is eligible to be an officer, and how the process of electing officers was to operate.

The chapter held elections of officers, with members voting on nominees for Co-Presidents and Treasurer. Elections for Historian and Secretary were suspended until the next meeting in order to allow all nominated members for the positions to attend. Elected were Matt Pennell, Co-President from the UW Law School; Meg Lanker-Simons, undergraduate Co-President; and Peter Steiner, Treasurer.

Wyoming ACLU Staff Attorney, Jennifer Horvath, was also present for the meeting and elections. Horvath detailed the ACLU's history briefly, discussed the importance of the ACLU's non-partisan status as an organization, and closed the meeting by drawing a ticket for the door prize. After elections, members conferred about potential upcoming events and planned for the next meeting.

The ACLU of Wyoming's Student Chapter is unique, being the first hybrid student chapter in the country, with full membership open to UW undergraduates, LCCC students, and UW Law School students. Interested community members are also welcome to attend, though only students can run for officer positions within the chapter.

The next meeting is currently scheduled for September 28th at 6:00 p.m. in the UW Senate Chambers on the second floor of the Wyoming Union. For more information, email the UW ACLU Student Chapter at

> By Meg Lanker-Simons

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Redistricting Revisited

The most recent redistricting public hearing was held in Torrington on August 15 in city council chambers. The room was packed and every seat filled. There were the usual suspects – elected officials and politicians, along with a number of interested citizens. A number of individuals spoke in support of Representative Hunt’s plan; its popularity driven by the fact that Representative Hunt used county lines as the basis for districts. Former Speaker Chamberlain gave an interesting account on the history of redistricting in Wyoming. The speaker said that 20 years ago unfairness reigned supreme and this side of the state has been treated unfairly since that time. He also stated that it was important to maintain the commonality of people’s interest.

There was a great deal of testimony in this hearing and it was the liveliest of all the hearings so far.

The next day, on August 16, the committee met at the Capitol to discuss the plans that have been submitted so far. Every plan that is sponsored by a legislator will be accepted by the committee and placed on the legislative website for review. County clerks submitted a plan which was reviewed by the committee. The clerks considered Representative Hunt’s plan and used his principles as much as possible. The group also sought to hold districts as complete and intact as possible, and to use major highways when drawing lines.

Plans from Natrona, Laramie, Albany and Campbell County were also reviewed and discussed.

Dan Neal, of the Equality State Policy Center, suggested that it would be helpful to define what a “community of interest” is, as people seem to have different opinions on what the elements might be.

The committee has added two additional public hearings in Sheridan and Douglas on September 19, and the next full committee meetings will be in Casper on October 20 and 21.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What would you put on your headstone? American Exceptionalism, Religion, the Constitution, & the ACLU

American exceptionalism has been pouring into the political conversations of Americans quite a bit as of late. Along with the notion of exceptionalism, is the differing and usually deeply held viewpoints Americans have concerning the deference our founding fathers gave to religion.

First Amendment author James Madison sums up what the founding fathers understood about the role religion was to play in America. James Madison said of religion, “Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. [Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), in 8 Papers of James Madison 301 (W. Rachal, R. Rutland, B. Ripel, & F. Teute eds. 1973)]. Madison seemed to believe that religion would be corrupted if it was brought into the public sphere. If religion was to have an impression on the public it would not be shared through the organs of the government, rather by the hearts and efforts of those willing to spread what they believed to be the truth.

Because of this belief in a separation between any religious establishment and the government, James Madison included two specific clauses in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [.]”

These two clauses reflect what is often termed freedom of conscience. This includes the liberty of any individual in our democracy to hold a belief or point of view irrespective of its popularity or approval from either other private citizens or the government. This most certainly includes the freedom to privately engage in or abstain from religious belief and expression. This liberty should not, and constitutionally cannot, be afforded to some groups and not to others. As a consequence, the ACLU subscribes to the principle that if the rights of society’s most vulnerable members are denied, everybody’s rights are imperiled.

The freedom of conscience, according to the ACLU, must be protected not exclusively for the most numerously held or conventional religious beliefs, but also for any genuinely held beliefs. From a constitutional perspective this is not only a just principle but also a fairly straightforward application of a fundamental right of expression. This protection of all viewpoints, regardless of their cohesion with those of the majority, may be misconstrued as an effort to undermine the majority belief system. As a result, a number of false ideas have been propagated into the canon of myths surrounding the ACLU’s reverence for those beliefs.

Probably the most infamous and equally untrue accusation is that the ACLU has sued to remove crosses. The ACLU’s position is just the opposite. In fact, the ACLU aims to ensure that soldiers and their families can choose which gravestone and symbols best express their faith.

Currently, the federal government has a list of 41 authorized religious emblems for headstones in Arlington Cemetery. This list includes Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and Greek crosses, along with a number of other symbols. This authorization list may impose a limitation on the deeply private choices of soldiers and their families regarding personal gravestones. If a family wants a specific symbol, associated with their family but not on the authorized list, placed on the gravestone, they are required to go through a cumbersome process. Ultimately, their request may be denied by the government.

The ACLU believes that the decision of what symbol, if any, should be placed on a gravestone in Arlington cemetery, should be more inclusive and less cumbersome. The Department of Veterans Affairs has an unnecessarily complicated process for approval of a religious symbol on an individual gravestone in Arlington cemetery. The ACLU has openly stated that inclusion of all religious symbols would promote religious expression, in its fact sheet, Myths & Realities: Gravestones and Markers Are Not in Danger.
If the Department of Veterans Affairs adopted this policy, all American service members and veterans would enjoy a greater ability to exercise their freedom of conscience.

What the ACLU opposes is endorsement of a particular religious faith by the federal government. When the government erects a permanent religious symbol on public display, it essentially sanctions that religion to the exclusion of others. The ACLU has taken action to have those government-sponsored sectarian symbols removed when in the public space of a cemetery. Religious displays by the government, unlike religious symbols on gravestones, fail to honor all of our veterans.

A simple checking of the facts discredits the notion that the ACLU wants to remove religious symbols from personal gravestones. The ACLU is advocating for more latitude to exercise religious beliefs freely, so long as the government doesn’t establish within itself any particular religious ideology.

For more information, see The ACLU and Cemetery Crosses.

Matthew Pennell,
Legal Extern

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

We're Going to Need a Warrant, Officer...

Today, the ACLU of Wyoming, along with 33 other state-based ACLU affiliates, filed a public records act request to uncover information about warrantless cell phone tracking.

As of December 2010, over 96 percent of the overall population of the United States carried a cell phone—an estimated 302.9 million people. But while Americans have quickly embraced cell phones and the convenience they offer, the widespread use of cell phones has given the government the unprecedented ability to track people’s movements by tracking the geographical location of their cell phones.

What’s revealed by location tracking can be intensely personal. For example, as one court recently wrote, knowing someone’s location can reveal whether a person “is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Location information is so sensitive that the authorities should only be able to get it by demonstrating probable cause to a judge and getting a warrant – just as they must do to intrude on your privacy in other ways. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, and there is nothing reasonable about tracking our movements without the approval of a judge.

Unfortunately, not all police departments agree that probable cause and a warrant are necessary.

That is why the ACLU filed public records act requests to uncover information about warrantless cell phone tracking. We have a right to know about how the police are using cell phones to track people. We want to know:

•Do the police show probable cause and get a warrant to track cell phones?
•How often do the police obtain cell phone location information?
•Once the police get cell phone location information from a cell phone company, do they keep it forever or do they get rid of it after a limited time?
•How much money are the police spending to get cell phone location information?

We’ll keep you posted on what we learn. In the meantime, the ACLU will be continuing to work in the courts, in Congress, in state legislatures across the country, and with companies to better safeguard sensitive location information. We hope you will join us and contact your member of Congress to urge them to support new location privacy bills introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). This public records request and our efforts in Congress are part of our broader
Demand your dotRights Campaign to make sure that as technology advances, our privacy rights are not left behind.

For more information, go to:
ACLU Cell Phone Location Tracking Public Records Request