MINNEAPOLIS — The new head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota says he feels privileged to have a full-time job where he can be a champion for civil rights.
Longtime Twin Cities attorney John Gordon was named executive director of the organization’s Minnesota chapter Thursday. He told The Associated Press that defending the Constitution is more important than ever as cruelty, homophobia, racism and violence permeate some people’s lives.
Gordon has been an attorney in the Twin Cities for more than 40 years and recently served as ACLU-MN’s interim legal director. Throughout his career he’s worked on complex commercial litigation, but also has taken on public interest cases. He represented LGBT students seeking relief from harassment in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, plaintiffs challenging Minnesota’s “conceal-carry” firearms statute and immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
He has also taught law at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas.
Gordon said he’s thrilled to be at the ACLU, where he can work full-time on causes he’s supported for years. He replaces Charles Samuelson, who retired in February after leading the chapter for 20 years.
THE ACLU’S ROLE TODAY
Gordon said the ACLU’s work is critical in today’s climate, when many people feel their rights and liberties are under threat.
“I don’t think there has ever been a time when it is more important for us to be defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Gordon said.
He noted the ACLU was active during the Red Scare, in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and other turbulent times in history. But now: “I think we are seeing an avalanche of cruelty, homophobia, racism and violence that literally permeates our public and our civil life. I know the ACLU has played a key role in upholding the rule of law and upholding the Constitution in past times, and I’m confident we will continue to do that,” he said.
Gordon said the ACLU will continue to work on the same issues as always, including freedom of speech, immigrants’ rights, racial justice, police misconduct issues, and more. But the organization will also turn to emerging issues in defense of the Constitution.
For example, new technology has brought up issues that didn’t exist five years ago, such as police use of body cameras and the policies that surround them, or the use and sale of student data by marketers, he said.
Concerns have also arisen over interactions between state and local governments and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Gordon said the Justice Department is trying to get state and local governments to hold people longer than they are entitled to so immigration officials can pick them up.
He said immigration enforcement is less discriminating than it was under the Obama administration.
“This Justice Department has very intentionally put this entire community in fear,” he said. “You can see it in people’s faces.”
WHAT ABOUT HATE SPEECH?
When asked how the ACLU will navigate protecting a person’s right to free speech when it comes to hateful or racist rhetoric, Gordon said the ACLU’s priority is the vigorous protection of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
“But we do have to make sure that we are not facilitating threats against people, bullying of people, putting people in fear, endangering them — that is not what we are going to be doing. That is, in fact, what we are fighting against,” he said.
“We are not going to work with people who are using the Constitution as a sham or as a vehicle for doing hateful and violent and dangerous things,” he said. “How does that play out in any given circumstance? You don’t know until someone knocks on your door.”