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PowerPlayer: RI ACLU Director Steve Brown

Monday, November 26, 2012


This week’s PowerPlayer is ACLU executive director Steve Brown. Mr. Brown was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about the work he does and the importance of his organization.

1) The ACLU has been in the news a lot this year. Tell us why it is so important for your organization to continue doing the work you do.

The Bill of Rights codifies our country’s most important freedoms, but it is not a self-executing document. It takes an organization like the ACLU to hold the government accountable to protect those freedoms. Otherwise, principles like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process and equal protection of the laws would merely be words on a piece of paper. And although many of the issues the ACLU handles may be controversial, every Rhode Islander has benefited from our actions in ways they often don’t realize. If you’ve ever participated in a rally in the State House, if you’re a married woman who uses her birth name on her driver’s license, if you appreciate the fact that your employer cannot force you to pee in a cup under his or her watchful eyes upon a whim, or if you’ve ever obtained a public record without paying an exorbitant amount for copying costs, it is because of work the Rhode Island ACLU has done over the years.

2) Being in the news also brings plenty of criticism. How much do you pay attention to the critics?

ACLU cases and actions often involve significant policy and legal issues that go to the heart of what it means to live in a free society. Those issues can involve weighing competing public interests about which reasonable minds may differ. Discussion and debate about them is therefore important, welcome and inevitable. Unfortunately, a good deal of the criticism that the ACLU receives amounts to little more than childish name-calling. We would be the first to defend the right of people to engage in that type of discourse, but it is not worth paying attention to.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

It can vary considerably. During the six months the General Assembly is in session, the day will usually start by sitting down with my lobbying colleague Hillary Davis and reviewing all of the committee hearings or floor votes taking place that day, deciding which bills we need to be prepared to testify on, which legislators we need to talk to, and which other organizations we should alert about those bills. From there, we do the necessary research, write up testimony, draft potential amendments to suggest, and then head up to the State House where we wait for hearings to start, look for legislators and lobbyists to talk to, testify, and then wait around some more. The next day, we start all over.

4) You’ve worked on hundreds of issues over the years. Do you have a favorite?

Although there are some issues I enjoy working on more than others, the extraordinary variety of civil liberties matters we handle makes it impossible for me to choose one favorite or most important issue. I can’t meaningfully compare the complaint from a person who has been inappropriately beaten by police; that of a young student who is sent to the principal’s office for refusing, for reasons of conscience, to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance; or a political candidate who has been arbitrarily denied the right to be placed on the ballot. In their own way, they, and others like them, are each extremely important issues.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

Before finding my calling as a civil liberties advocate, my heart was set on being a journalist.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: William Brennan, Jr.

Favorite Restaurant: Congress Tavern

Best Beach: Sand Hill Cove

Best Book You’ve Read in the Last Year: “Elizabeth and Hazel” by David Margolick

Advice for the Next Steve Brown: Take up yoga or something to relax you.

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.


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