Earlier this week, the City of Albuquerque and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico settled a lawsuit alleging that the Police Oversight Commission (POC) violated the First Amendment rights of several citizens during a meeting last December.
“The terms of this settlement constitute a big win for free speech,” said ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson. “In a healthy democracy, the public must be able to criticize their government without fear of suppression or retaliation. This settlement not only affirms that right, but expands the public’s ability to communicate with this commission.”
The plaintiffs in this case, Charles Arasim, Kenneth Ellis, Silvio Dell’Angela and Eli Chavez, are all community activists who routinely speak out against police brutality. The four men say they were denied an opportunity to voice their concerns over a perceived conflict of interest involving one of the POC commissioners.
In addition to the $14,000 in damages and attorneys fees, the settlement is supposed to include procedural adjustments to the Commission’s rules to promote enhanced free speech and expression and citizen involvement.
Kenneth Ellis Jr. says he is happy with the settlement because it affirms his right to question the government. “As the father of a son who was wrongfully killed by Albuquerque police, I must speak out about the problems with the police and the Police Oversight Commission—even when the government doesn’t like what I have to say,” Ellis said. “No other family should have to go through what ours did.”
The fiasco began when these men attempted to challenge the ethical standards of then-POC Chairperson Linda Martinez for having deep ties to the Fraternal Order of Police. Martinez served as the law enforcement advocacy group's former president while serving as chairperson of the Commission. According to the complaint, the Fraternal Order of Police has a policy that opposes civilian oversight of police activity at any level of government. Martinez, who vacated the office after her second term, was not eligible for reappointment.
Susanne Koestner called a Walgreens in Albuquerque to refill her birth control prescription in mid-June. The pharmacist working told her he wouldn’t do it and she should get her birth control the next day from someone else, according to an American Civil Liberties Union news release. He said it was against his religious beliefs.
So Koestner had to call a different Walgreens because she couldn’t wait. (Birth control is time-sensitive.)
“Something is very wrong when a man can walk in to any pharmacy and buy condoms, but a woman can't fill a birth control prescription prescribed to her by a doctor,” says Koestner in the release. “As a patient, I am at the mercy of licensed pharmacists and pharmacies when it comes to being able to receive the medications my doctor has prescribed for me.”
This was a hot topic in 2005, when states were considering whether to make emergency contraception available over the counter. Former Alibi Editor in Chief Christie Chisholm wrote about the issue back then.
Some states have made laws protecting a pharmacist’s right to refuse: Pharmacists can refuse to dispense specifically emergency contraception in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi and South Dakota. So-called “conscience clauses” got their start in the ’70s after Roe v. Wade.
In Illinois, a law was passed demanding pharmacists dispense contraception.
The local chapter of the ACLU says the Albuquerque pharmacist’s refusal constitutes sex discrimination. “... Walgreens is free to accommodate the religious beliefs of its pharmacists,” says ACLU-NM Staff Attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith in the release. “However, religion cannot be used to discriminate against people, and that is exactly what happened here.”
The ACLU and the Southwest Women’s Law Center sent Walgreens a letter requesting that if a pharmacist on staff can’t fill prescriptions due to religious beliefs, another pharmacist should be on duty who can.
The city of Bloomfield, N.M., may have the Ten Commandments installed in front of City Hall. Not so fast, says the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. The organization announced today that it filed a public records request on the project to determine if it violates the First Amendment.
The Bloomfield City Council supported a proposal to install the biblical statue on Monday, June 13. Four years earlier, Councilor Kevin Mauzy spearheaded a policy allowing any organization to donate a monument to City Hall as long as it pertains to the history of the U.S. law.
After the policy passed in July 2007, Peter Simonson, the executive director of ACLU-NM, expressed concerns that the Ten Commandments monument violates the Constitution. Supporters say the statue reflects the history of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Simonson says he doesn't see anything to validate that view.
"There is no evidence to suggest a direct link between the Ten Commandments and anything in our body of laws." America’s legal system can't be attributed to any particular text, he adds.
While the monument will not receive city funding, he says its placement suggests an endorsement of a specific faith. The language of the Ten Commandments varies between religions, and Simonson says the inclusion of one variation excludes others.
"The city of Bloomfield is faced with a decision of which religion they're going to snub and which particular faith they're going to ensconce in a monument on the lawn of their City Hall," he says.
The members of the ACLU watch for cases of local governments endowing religious symbolism and meaning on city property. In some cases they can resolve the issue with a letter or open dialogue—but other cases end up in the Supreme Court. Simonson says the courts generally rule against the local government in similar cases throughout the country.
"Where the local government has simply constructed a stand-alone Ten Commandments monument ... the courts have ruled those monuments to be an impermissible violation of the First Amendment," he says. This is especially true when the governmental body that supported the installation had a religious motivation, he adds.
Simonson says that the ACLU will determine its next course of action after a full investigation into the proposal.
Bloomfield's city councilors were unavailable for comment.
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Do you remember this story? Back in the day, 2007, President Bush came to Albuquerque. Protesters for peace had to wave their signs out of view of the motorcade, while supporters were allowed front-row seats. Scenarios like this cropped up time and again around the country during Bush's presidency. FOX reported on it in 2003.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department and others for shuffling the anti-Bush and anti-war demonstrators off to the side. The defendants asked that the suit be thrown out. But today, a District Court judge ruled that it should move forward, and it will likely go before a jury.
Gov. Susana Martinez today issued an executive order mandating state police look into the citizenship of people arrested for crimes. Officers will be barred from investigating the immigration status of victims. They also won't ask about the status of drivers stopped for speeding. "This order takes the handcuffs off of New Mexico’s law enforcement officers in their mission to keep our communities safe," the governor wrote in the order.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico says the move will invite racial profiling and that it offers "an incentive to police to arrest people who look and sound 'foreign.' " ACLU-NM Director Peter Simonson also called the directive "SB 1070-like."