main aclu.jpg

Carla Collins (left) and Jane Diange use an American Civil Liberties Union banner as a backdrop for Chris Richard's photo as the ACLU's South Carolina affiliate office celebrated its 50th year at The Republic Garden & Lounge on Thursday, September 27, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

When the American Civil Liberties Union arrived in South Carolina in 1968, it tackled a very different set of cases from the legal battles it is waging today.

The state’s ACLU chapter is marking its 50th year by reflecting on its past work, including fights that set important precedents on freedom of religion, freedom of speech and sexual discrimination.

But its anniversary also finds the organization taking stock and looking ahead to different sorts of battles, grassroots fights that increasingly have to do with economic and social justice.

ACLU of S.C. Executive Director Shaundra Scott said she expects future cases to focus on racial and youth justice, immigrants' rights and criminal justice — the kinds of cases the national ACLU has pursued for a while.

+2 
ACLU of South Carolina announces new executive director (copy) (copy)

Shaundra Young Scott serves as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

"The mission of the ACLU — especially the ACLU of South Carolina — is to fight for the rights of the human race," she said.

The ACLU of S.C. is headquartered in Charleston. In 2015, the group had three full-time employees. Today, office has five full-time staffers. 

Susan Dunn is the office's sole attorney, but she said the group relies on volunteer attorneys, too.

+2 
susan dunn aclu.jpg

Susan Dunn, Legal Director for the ACLU of South Carolina, spoke of the affiliate office's work through the years as it celebrated its 50th anniversary at The Republic Garden & Lounge on Thursday, September 27, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

This new direction toward social justice and community-oriented work for the ACLU reflects the country's changing needs, said ACLU National Political Director Faiz Shakir, who visited Charleston on Thursday. After the election of President Donald Trump, ACLU membership numbers shot up from roughly 450,000 to about 1.7 million.

Nonetheless, Shakir said it is important the S.C. chapter takes time to reflect on its first half century. 

"You have to realize and appreciate that you start from a certain place," Shakir said. "That doesn't mean you have to stay there." 

Here's a look back at some of the most important and high-profile cases brought forth by the ACLU of South Carolina over the past 50 years, as well as a few cases it is pursuing today:

Sexual discrimination, 1973 

In 1971, Victoria Eslinger, a law student at the University of South Carolina, applied to be a page in the state Senate but was rejected because of her gender.

The ACLU sued, arguing that her denial was a violation of the equal protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The lawsuit was broadened to become a class action on behalf of all women in the state of South Carolina.

In 1973, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that denying women employment as pages violated the Constitution's equal protection clause.

Freedom to protest the military, 1974

Howard Levy, a medical doctor from Brooklyn, was stationed at Fort Jackson during the Vietnam War. In 1967, he was court-martialed for refusing to train Green Berets also stationed at Fort Jackson.

The ACLU stepped in and sued on First Amendment grounds, protecting Levy's right to lawful protest within the U.S. military.

Even though the ACLU lost the case in 1974, it laid the groundwork for similar legal battles that succeeded elsewhere. 

Attorney-client privilege, 1977

In 1970, Brett Bursey was arrested on a charge of destruction of property after a brick was thrown into a Columbia building during a Vietnam War protest.

During the protest he was accompanied by an undercover informant who was working for the State Law Enforcement Division. Bursey believed this person to be another student.

Without disclosing his identity, the undercover agent sat in on a meeting between Bursey and his attorney, and later reported on that meeting in court testimony.

The ACLU sued the agent and SLED on Sixth Amendment grounds, citing a breach in attorney-client privilege. The U.S. District Court sided with Bursey, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed that decision.

Sterilization of women, 1978

In 1978, Edna Smith Primus discovered that women in South Carolina who were receiving public assistance through Medicaid were doing so under the condition that they would be subjected to sterilization. She met a woman, Mary Etta Williams, who had been sterilized by her doctor after her third pregnancy. 

Primus spoke with the women about their legal rights and offered free representation from the ACLU. The doctor performing the sterilizations sued Primus, saying this solicitation of the patients was a violation of ethics.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Primus in a 7-1 vote.

Freedom to display nude paintings, 1995

Jennings Rountree was the curator of the Barnwell County Art Museum in 1995, when he agreed to showcase a controversial series of works by Robert Sherer.

The paintings depicted the removal of nude female subjects and the addition of nude male subjects. The museum board took issue with the nudity and shut the doors to the museum. The board also removed the paintings and shipped them to an unknown location.

The ACLU sued on First Amendment grounds, saying that shutting the doors amounted to government censorship. The case was filed and settled in the U.S. District Court in Charleston. The museum displayed the artwork for four days. 

Freedom to be an atheist, 1997 

The South Carolina Constitution once required that "no person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."

In other words, anyone who wanted to run for office had to pass a religious test set by the state. Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston and an atheist, objected to this rule in 1990. The ACLU sued the state on First Amendment grounds. 

The ACLU argued Silverman's decision not to associate with an organized religion should not impede him from running for public office. In 1997, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled the clause unconstitutional. 

The ACLU today 

The ACLU of S.C. recently pushed the State Election Commission to extend voter registration deadlines in light of Hurricane Florence, an effort joined by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

The group also participated in the Charleston Pride Festival, where staffers collected signatures for a petition related to LGBT rights.

On Sunday, the ACLU of S.C. rallied in Marion Square to push for the addition of a "truth plaque" at the monument of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina's 19th century political leader who was committed to preserving slavery. The group also tries to educate marginalized citizens about how to read new bills and offer testimony at the Statehouse.

Here are two pending cases that highlight the organization's push to pay more attention to civil courts when it comes to combating criminal and racial justice issues:

  • The ACLU and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Beaufort challenging South Carolina municipal courts' practices of denying lawyers to people who are sentenced to jail and cannot afford private attorneys. The case was filed last October.  

  • In Lexington County, hundreds are jailed each year because they cannot afford to pay parking tickets. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit last June challenging the arrest and incarceration of poor people without a hearing or representation. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.