Legal Report: Lookback at 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware works in the courts, in the state and federal legislatures, with government officials and at the grassroots level to protect and promote freedom of speech, religious freedom, racial justice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, students’ rights, reproductive freedom, the right of privacy, criminal justice, to improve prison conditions and to reduce police abuse.

The Rights You Save May Be Your Own

The legal program’s role is to try to convince government officials to follow the Constitution, and to sue them when they won’t. To the greatest extent possible, we focus on cases that are likely to have a significant impact in Delaware and beyond.

The legal staff consists of one lawyer and one volunteer who just graduated from law school. Between fifty and one hundred requests for help arrive every month. We rely heavily on volunteers, including lawyers in private practice, retired people, law students and paralegals to respond to those requests and to help with the cases we can take.

Looking Back at 2010-2011

The ACLU of Delaware legal program has accomplished incredible success over the last fifteen months or so. Below is a summary of resolved cases—and a clear demonstration of the importance of the ACLU’s role when it comes to protecting our liberties. Read about our most recent free speech victory for Occupy Delaware here.

Free Speech

  • Sussex County Council repealed a rule that required those who wished to speak during the public comment period of council meetings to agree in writing not to criticize council members or county personnel on certain topics.
  • Dover City Council rejected a social media policy that would have limited the rights of city employees to use social media on their own time.
  • Capital School District agreed to go back to the drawing board on a proposed social media policy that would have restricted students’ rights to use the internet off campus, and announced that it would reconsider a social media policy previously adopted for employees.
  • The City of Wilmington instructed the police to let a street musician sing, after he was told that if he did not remove his sign (“Degree no good. Need money for taxes.”) they would arrest him for begging and seize his guitar as evidence. The city also agreed to have the unconstitutional ordinance repealed.

Freedom of Religion

  • The federal court ruled that our client, a Muslim child confronted in her Cape Henlopen elementary school class by the teacher, and then transferred out of the class over her objections, after she and her mother complained about daily readings of Christian religious books to the students, was entitled to a trial on her First Amendment claim.  The case then settled.
  • A Claymont apartment house that permitted a Catholic priest to use a common room on Sunday mornings to conduct mass, but refused to permit a Protestant minister to conduct services, agreed to change its policy to permit both clergymen to use the facility.
  • Concord High School responded to a student’s complaint that she was coerced into singing overly religious songs in order to take chorale class by bringing this year’s concert programs into compliance with the Constitution.

Racial Justice

  • In order to settle a case where we expected to prove that an African-American  student  had been expelled under a racially skewed application of its zero tolerance policy, Christina School District agreed to institute changes in disciplinary policies and procedures to improve the process for students and make punishment more appropriate to infractions. Christina also agreed to rescind our client’s expulsion and send her a letter of apology.
  • In the one case we lost this year, the Delaware Supreme Court overruled a decision by the Human Relations Commission finding that a Dover theater had violated Delaware law by subjecting an African-American audience to treatment the Commission characterized as hostile, humiliating and demeaning, although no audience of white adults had ever been treated similarly.

Family Rights

  • The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of a statute, drafted by an ACLU cooperating attorney, authorizing Family Court to grant parental rights to an individual who acts as an additional parent to a child with an original parent’s approval. The ruling gives all families, including single-parent families and same sex-couples, a legal alternative to protect the well-being of their children.

Prison Conditions

  • Our case on behalf of a woman raped at the Delaware woman’s prison was settled, in part, with a court order requiring unprecedented changes in the operation of the prison system to prevent rape and other sexual abuse, a previously all too common problem. The order, which has a five year term, obligates the Department of Correction to provide us with the documents needed to demonstrate compliance, and empowers ACLU-DE to seek a contempt order if DOC fails to comply with the agreement.

Abuse of Power

  • Our wrongful death case on behalf of Elaine Hale was settled for a payment of $875,000 by the City of Wilmington. Her husband, Derek, was shot to death by Wilmington police during an arrest, when he did not respond to police commands as the police wished, after being tasered multiple times.

Immigrant Rights

  • We filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a Spanish speaking criminal defendant, arguing that the court was required to provide him with an interpreter for trial. Two days after receiving our brief, the court ruled that the man was indigent, thereby obligating the Public Defender to provide him with an interpreter.  All charges against the man were later dropped.

Privacy Rights

  • In a case where we provided advice but not formal representation, Superior Court ruled that police need court approval before attaching a GPS transmitter to a suspect’s car for long-term surveillance. We participated formally in the appeal of that decision to the Delaware Supreme Court by filing a friend-of-the-court brief.  That appeal is on hold while the U. S. Supreme Court considers a related issue.
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