ACLU’s growing pains

Nevada, like many places in America, badly needs a strong, vibrant, high-profile chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In one of the last true company towns — company states, really — there’s no shortage of people who the powers-that-be would prefer just go away, whether they be Strip handbillers, the mentally ill or children bullied in schools, their tormentors allegedly ignored by the school officials who are charged with protecting kids.

Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, everybody benefits from the work of the group that claims as its only real client the U.S. Constitution.

That’s why I was distressed to learn last week that attorney Allen Lichtenstein was resigning from the group after 17 years of civil rights battles.

Lichtenstein said he was motivated to leave by a shift away from the ACLU of Nevada’s former political independence toward a philosophy of alliances with like-minded groups. “That’s not where I’m at, or where I’ve ever been,” said Lichtenstein, 63.

A man whose name is probably in the phone or Rolodex of every reporter in town, Lichtenstein also said he objected to a policy that asked him to get the OK, or at least notify, the organization whenever he talked to the media. “I’m just too old a dog to learn that particular trick,” he said.

I’ve known Lichtenstein for years and have covered scores of First Amendment controversies he was involved in. For years, the dynamic duo of former Executive Director Gary Peck and staff attorney Lichtenstein were on the front lines of every significant First Amendment battle waged in this town. (Peck left the ACLU in 2009.)

They really were apolitical, defending conservatives from restrictive petition-gathering rules and so-called truth-in-campaigning laws. They were the first ACLU local to come out in support of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that handgun ownership is an individual right.

They also defended Strip handbillers and even the now-defunct Las Vegas CityLife newspaper when I was its editor. (We sued to overturn a state law that prohibited legal Nevada brothels from advertising in Nevada counties where prostitution is illegal. We fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost.)

So when Lichtenstein said, “I don’t really fit in with where they are,” I was understandably concerned.

But Tod Story, a former top staffer for Rep. Shelley Berkley who was hired as the ACLU of Nevada’s executive director in May 2013, said Lichtenstein’s departure won’t interfere with the organization’s mission.

“The ACLU will continue to defend civil liberties and civil rights,” Story said. “People should not be concerned in the least. If you want to call it growing pains, that would be one way to describe it.”

Story said the ACLU of Nevada, founded in 1966, is in transition, from a volunteer board-driven group to a professional staff-driven organization. “It’s a different model of running the organization,” he said.

Part of that is forming partnerships with other groups and establishing new policies. (Story said the media policy was intended simply to keep track of who was saying what to reporters in the name of the organization.)

“Nothing has changed as far as our mission is concerned,” he said. The ACLU is advertising Lichtenstein’s job as well as the new position of legal director. Until those jobs are filled, volunteer attorneys (including ACLU board member Robert Langford and his law partner, former ACLU legal director Maggie McLetchie) are filling in on cases.

And Lichtenstein says he’s not going anywhere, either. He has always maintained a private law practice in addition to his ACLU work, and he’ll continue that. Some ACLU clients have elected to stick with Lichtenstein as their lawyer, and he’s looking for other clients, too.

That’s good to hear. Because whether its a private attorney, or Nevada’s essential ACLU chapter, this state badly needs people to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or