ACLU of Vermont sets agenda, expanding staff

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MANCHESTER — Following the election of President Donald Trump, the Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has almost doubled in size, according to executive director James Duff Lyall.

Lyall spoke on the state chapter's growth and tackled a number of topical issues, during a community forum Wednesday night at the Northshire Bookstore.

"Sometimes it feels like we are in dog years, but it's only been eight months since the inauguration," said Lyall. "Obviously the election has had huge repercussions for many things, but especially civil liberties and civil rights."

In Vermont, the ACLU has expanded its focus on issues including immigrant rights, transgender rights, and voter suppression. Growing support of the ACLU has allowed the organization to work more effectively nationally and in Vermont, Lyall said.

"It is true that our membership has almost quadrupled [nationally] since the election, and has allowed us to make some strategic investments in staff," said Lyall. "That added capacity is going to allow us to be present in more communities around the state more consistently, which we're really excited about."

In Vermont specifically, the ACLU has added multiple statewide positions that have not existed previously in the branch's 50 year history. It recently added a full time policy director to represent its interests in the Legislature, a community organizer, for expanding the group's statewide presence, and a communications director.

While the ACLU is committed to responding to Trump Administration policies "every which way," according to Lyall, the organization is maintaining its focus on trademark issues relating to civil liberties and civil rights.

"We are also continuing the work we've been doing for a long time on criminal justice reform, on police accountability, on privacy, and on combating the criminalization of poverty in Vermont," said Lyall. "We hope to be doing more work with communities across the state to advance civil rights and civil liberties for all Vermonters."

In a brief presentation on the ACLU's work both nationally and in Vermont, Lyall addressed a number of cases the organization will bring to the U.S. Supreme Court this term including Charlie Craig and David Mullins v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jennings v. Rodriguez, United States v. Carpenter, and International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump.

Though many of the cases were initiated prior to the inauguration, "all of these cases go to issues that embody, or are very much tied into, the Trump agenda," he said.

He then opened up the discussion for audience questions, which ranged from NFL players kneeling for the national anthem to border crossing issues in Vermont.

Heartened by immense community interest, Lyall urged residents of Southern Vermont to keep an eye out for future ACLU engagement in the region.

"People should, in addition to joining the ACLU and signing up for our alerts, pay attention to when the ACLU is going to be in town," said Lyall. "We are going to be more consistently present in communities around the state including in Southern Vermont."

While being in a defensive and reactionary position can be challenging, said Lyall, a combination of legal action, public protest, and civic engagement can result in positive change.

"As difficult, and overwhelming, and intractable as a lot of these challenges seem from Vermont, I believe that a lot of the solutions start on the local level and the state level," said Lyall. "We have a lot of work to do, but the good news is that we have a growing capacity to tackle those challenges."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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