On the wall of Alessandra Soler Meetze’s office hangs an illustrated guide to the Bill of Rights in colorful cartoon drawings. One of the drawings shows a police officer morphing through a television in a living room as a family reacts in horror. Beneath it are the words, “No unreasonable search or seizure.”
The poster is a reminder of the freedoms that people who live in the United States enjoy. It is also a reminder that these freedoms can be lost, minimized or set aside.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which turned 50 this year, is at the forefront of the struggle to uphold citizen rights.
Its battlefield is the courtroom. Under Soler Meetze’s leadership, the ACLU has expanded its caseload to 20 cases in 2009 from six in 2006.
In the next five years, the group will focus on advocacy for immigrants’ rights, improving prison conditions and ending Arizona’s ban on felon voting. Soler Meetze, a second-generation immigrant, is a former reporter who worked at the Miami Herald. She speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish, which she learned from her parents.
ACLU-Arizona will be 50 years old this year – older than you and me.
I think our official charter date is June 22, 1959, of this affiliate.
Next year will be our 90th year for the national organization.
Are there reasons to celebrate?
There are. We’ve grown tremendously. We are a strong, viable organization. I think what has been so interesting to me is, during planning and researching the events that kind of helped start the ACLU in Arizona, I’ve met some wonderful people.
We had the opportunity to honor our first clients. Our first client is a Japanese-American by the name of Henry Oyama. He is still alive. He is still very much committed to civil liberties. In December of 1959, he wanted to marry his sweetheart, a white woman, and we had laws that prohibited that from happening.
A lot of our original founders are still active in the organization, so they have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge. And, yeah, we went from an organization of 200 members to an organization of 6,500 members.
How would you describe the advances that the state has made as far as human rights and protecting constitutional rights in the last 50 years that ACLU-Arizona has been around?
I think we’ve had tremendous accomplishments through the court systems. One of the most fundamental rights that everybody has is the right against self-incrimination. That was a case that originated here out of Arizona on behalf of a day laborer out of Mesa. And I think we’ve come a long way, but I think what we are seeing now in terms of the sort of the targeting of certain groups of people really kind of raises concerns about what direction we as a state want to move.
What we are seeing now in terms of the mistreatment of the immigrant community, I think, is more than frightening. I think it is really unconscionable what we are doing as a state, and what we don’t want to see happen is (what) we’ve seen happen in so many other instances, where 50 years from now we turn back and we say maybe we went too far.
The fact that the ACLU decides to fight in court as opposed to other means like street activism, for example, shows a profound faith in the American legal system. Do you personally think that America as a society is just?
I think that on paper we are.
I think that in recent years there have been lots of public policies that have raised questions about our commitment to the rule of the law, our commitment to the Constitution. I think that we have turned a blind eye on a lot of our fundamental ideals in the name of national security, and I think it has kind of really jeopardized our moral standing in the world. But I do think we have one of the best legal systems in the world.
There is a reason why we are such a strong, viable, proud democracy.
Everyone wants to come and prosper here and build their lives here. I think that’s what’s wonderful about this country. We are one of the most diverse countries in the world. We are a nation of immigrations.
I do think that we are a just society. I think that we have kind of fallen off the – what do they say – the sort of beaten path. And I think we need to kind of really ask ourselves, how are we going to regain that sort of moral standing that I think that we’ve kind of jeopardized in recent years simply in the name of national security, in the name of fear. Fear has let us to sort of condone some of the things that I think we never would.
Is your organization anti-Christian?
No, not at all. I think we are an organization that has represented on numerous occasions and staunchly defended the right of people to express their religious views or to not express any views at all. We as an organization have defended the rights of students to pray in school. When we talk about church and state, you talk about the fundamental right of people to express their religious views and the right to keep government out of religion. And so we balance both of those.
Frequently, we are accused of being anti-Christian, and it is our job to sort of educate the public about that. We have a long list of cases where we defended the rights of preachers to preach their gospel. We defended the late Jerry Falwell and represented him in litigation that was targeting his church in Virginia. We have defended the rights of students to sing songs about Jesus in their school plays.
Where do you draw the line between defending freedom of speech and making sure that you are not harassing a minority group using religious language?
I think that in the context of speech, that’s (how) we always have to kind of look at it. Does it rise to the level of harassment, serious threats where people sort of fear for their lives? In the context of the school setting, you want to make sure that these children are not being targeted and harassed. Everybody has the right to be safe in the public school setting.
But I think free speech – this is probably one of the most interesting areas of law. There is a big case that is now being heard or was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on the rights of people to distribute videos that show cruelty to animals. I think you’ve got to really look at, when it comes to free speech cases, the facts in the case.
There are the T-shirts that say homosexuality -
Is a sin.
And the one out of Chicago says?
Be happy, not gay.
There is a movement against the Real ID Act of 2005, but it’s still in place if I’m not mistaken.
Yes, it is. And so we had lots of states who have opted out. I think that the administration now is really looking at the feasibility of implementing these regulations. States were allowed to receive extensions. But, you know, I think there is a real outcry across the political spectrum.
It was interesting when the ACLU and the John Birch Society, two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and conservative lawmakers such as Karen Johnson, joined in to oppose Real ID. What was that experience like?
I think that was wonderful. I got to meet and make new friends across the aisles. We are a nonpartisan organization so we do work with legislators and groups across the political spectrum – the Goldwater Institute, the Institute for Justice, and legislators.
For me, it was a great opportunity to meet and have that personal relationship and connection with the Republican leadership, which I had not had the opportunity to do before. I think in order to move our issues and agenda forward, we need to be working with as many people across the political spectrum as possible, especially given the fact that we are in Arizona. It’s very politically diverse and unique, and you have many people for many years who were voting for Goldwater and Udall, right? It’s pretty common.
Last year, your board decided to officially divert from the national ACLU policy on gun ownership. Your position is that gun ownership is an individual rather than a collective right, which is what the national ACLU board policy is. Can you tell me the reason or reasons for disagreeing with the national policy?
I think that the recent decision (by the U.S. Supreme Court) was what kind of prompted it and the fact that the Arizona Constitution is very explicit in that it guarantees this individual right to bear arms. It is very clear. In Arizona, there is this explicit individual right to bear arms.
We are autonomous affiliates, so we have the authority to pass (policies) that are contrary to the national office. I have been with the ACLU for 10 years. When I was in Florida, we also took a contrary position to the national office during a case involving buffer zones at abortion clinics. We, at the Florida affiliate, represented the rights of pro-life protesters to protest outside of abortion clinics. And our national office represented the patients in the clinic.
How do you decide which cases to prosecute, and which cases to defend?
We have a legal panel made up of basically volunteer attorneys who will review the cases and review the complaints, and look at whether or not they should take it. We are a very small nonprofit organization with limited resources. A lot of people think that we’ve got a team of 50 lawyers.
What we do is we look at whether or not it is a case that impacts a large number of people, whether or not it raises sort of clear constitutional issues, then whether or not it is very fact-intensive and whether or not we have the resources to do that level of investigation, and then it goes to this separate, outside panel of volunteer attorneys who look at it and decide whether or not to accept the case.
How do you find these cases?
It depends. Many times, people will come to us or we will reach out to them. In the instance of the Dan Frazier and the T-shirts (Note: Frazier was selling T-shirts that stated “Bush Lied, They Died” and included a list of military members who had died in Iraq. Legislation was passed to stop him from using the names of deceased military members for profit, but the courts declared the law unconstitutional), he had been e-mailing us throughout the whole legislative session saying, “What’s going on here?” So, you know, he kind of reached out to us. So it just depends.