A History of the ACLU-WI Chippewa Valley Chapter 1967-2017 (by Ann Heywood)
In the early 1960s Tom Barth and Patrick George, newly hired professors of political science at Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire, found themselves sharing an office and discussing concerns about civil liberties. Barth had written his Ph.D. dissertation at UW-Madison on the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision on censorship by county officials. He was eager to organize colleagues and community members into an ACLU chapter. In that tumultuous Vietnam era, the Chippewa Valley Chapter of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, so named until 1987, began its work. Sylvia Sipress, another young political science professor, became the first chairperson of the board.
Records from the first two years no longer exist except that the original bylaws were dated 1967. In 1969 chapter newsletters reported on the 1968 board election and chapter activities of the previous and current years. The chapter sponsored the showing of an ACLU film about the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and a panel discussion on “The Regulation of Life: Civil Liberties Aspects, including Birth Control, Abortion, Organ Transplants, and Euthanasia.” Returning from Vietnam in 1968, Eau Claire attorney John Hibbard contacted the chapter and began a service of 33 years consulting with the board. His first case for the chapter, along with the League of Women Voters, was a challenge to Eau Claire County redistricting which greatly unbalanced the population numbers from district to district. The challenge stood and lines were redrawn with assistance from Tom Barth. Another case involved a Bloomer man blacklisted from local bars. The man was later removed from the blacklist on the principle of due process.
The first of many cases concerning students, teachers, and school life came to the chapter in 1969. The chapter defended a young man who was arrested for selling “pornographic and lewd literature” in an underground student newspaper, The Roach. In July Judge Thomas Barland ruled that the use of four-letter words did not fit the definition of obscenity, thus making an Eau Claire Area School District case against the student moot. Another case in 1969 concerned the firing of a Cadott ninth grade teacher who taught the interracial novel A Patch of Blue. Persuasion from the CVCLU did not work to reinstate the teacher or prevent the removal of the book from the curriculum. Also that year a group of Altoona students who organized and rented a public meeting room at City Hall were denied access to the space just two days before the event because of their purpose: to discuss black power and modern religion. Several complaints concerning students with long hair also came up in spite of an earlier ruling from U.S. District Court Judge James Doyle that school dress codes may only be established to prohibit dress which would be unsafe or seriously stop the normal activity of others. In 1970 a CVCLU sponsored forum on academic freedom concluded there is a great need for promoting awareness of civil liberties in the educational establishment. To that end, the CVCLU in 1971 sponsored a session and literature table at the Northwest Education Association Teacher Convention in the fall and repeated that outreach many times afterward.
During the 1970s the chapter board business usually concerned discussion of appeals for help that came to the president or a rented post office box. Many appeals did not involve civil liberties matters or were beyond the scope of chapter capabilities. However,
the chapter did take action to help a Native American student who was expelled for having long hair from Holcombe High School without due process (1972), to advocate on behalf of a UW-EC student wishing to canvass in the dormitory (1972), and to object to a new DPI book censorship rule (1975). It supported Native Americans’ rights to
frequent local bars in Hayward, Wisconsin (1976), and challenged censorship in the Thorp school district (1976). It objected to obtrusive frisking before a WSU-EC concert (1977), pushed back against an Eau Claire pornography ordinance (1978), met with the Chippewa Falls police chief about overly aggressive policing (1978). It successfully objected to the cable company’s plan to replace Channel 2 with a religious channel under a municipal contract (1979). In 1972 the board sent a telegram to the State
Assembly representative urging a negative vote on public funds for private schools.
Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s the board received few appeals for help, and the chapter seemed to lose its energy. Several times discussions came up about disbanding for lack of meaningful business. There is no record of meetings in 1980. The May 1981
program was “Why Johnny Can’t Read That Book: Censorship in the Public
Schools,” but that was the only recorded project. A distinct appeal to members to rejuvenate the chapter and hold new elections was sent in 1982. The meeting minutes prior to 1984 were usually sketchy and handwritten. A much healthier chapter emerged
about 1985 when minutes quite consistently documented a meeting with sufficient business almost every two months through 2016. In January 2017 the board felt compelled to increase the schedule to once a month.
In the later 1980s the board received a wide variety of appeals for help. Resolving a request by Menomonie High School students to start a school sponsored Amnesty
International Club took many months as the school board policy prohibited
clubs that were sponsored by partisan or religious groups. Students eventually
were allowed to have a club on school grounds. Several board members testified before the Eau Claire City Council against an obscenity ordinance and rezoning effort. One community member brought a variety of complaints including loud religious music from the university carillon tower, restrictions from soliciting on campus, and concern over library reading records. The board exchanged a number of letters with UW-EC and UW
Board of Regents officials over the university ID card requirement that students carry it at all times. Complaints about policing in the Hmong community sparked concerns about maintaining civil liberties and respecting differences in the Hmong culture. The chapter began an exchange of letters with the City of Eau Claire about the creche-centered Christmas display in Wilson Park. Eventually the city adopted a broader holiday approach that included a nativity scene among other secular symbols.
Moving into the 1990s, the board took up more student concerns. A dress code prohibiting wearing hats, privacy policies of student records, team prayer
before athletic events, and establishment of LGBT clubs were issues that came up in Eau Claire schools. For several years board members attended a number of school
Christmas—later “holiday”—concerts and urged music directors to remove the religious emphasis and consider the broader curricular purposes of performance selections. Menomonie High School went through communitywide debate over the Menomonie High School Indians mascot, which was finally changed to Menomonie Mustangs, after a statewide movement to drop Indian mascots.
Board members were excited to hear National ACLU Board President Nadine Strossen was engaged to speak at a 1996 UW-EC Forum and arranged a chapter meeting/dinner with her in the Dulany Room prior to her speech. The chapter helped promote the forum
presentation of national ACLU Executive Director, Anthony Romero in 2008.
Early newsletters reflected the lack of modern communications such as the internet and social media in that they often informed members about state and national issues and asked them to lobby on legislation. Topics included preventive detention, industrial security programs, obscenity, crime control, voter education and registration, mental health commitment procedures, effective due process in criminal cases, repeal or
reform of the military draft, direct election of the President, school prayer, public funds for private schools, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Nixon impeachment.
The treasury of the chapter for many years ran under $300 and sometimes close to zero. Different board members often hosted the annual meetings at their homes and these usually included a cocktail party and donations. In 1973 the chapter ran a fundraiser to help fund the first staff attorney for the WCLU. The chapter usually ran a dinner/fundraiser before the annual meeting in later years. In 2014 the chapter raised over $4000 at a fundraiser at the Schlegelmilch House in support of the ACLU legal challenge to Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban. In 1984 WCLU started a policy of
giving a rebate to chapters for each new member they recruited. The CVCLU
thereafter stepped up recruiting efforts. For a while board members tried an
“each one reach one” effort in which board members committed to recruiting
at least one new member per year. They also wrote letters to long-lapsed members to ask them to rejoin. Usually, expenses were low because the chapter work involved writing letters, volunteer visits with officials, low or no cost space rentals, and an annual newsletter, which was the biggest expense. Attorney Dan Freund hosted the
chapter website gratis from the early 2000s until 2017.
In the early years board members took turns hosting meetings at their homes, but when concern about handicap accessibility came up in 2002, meetings were moved accordingly. During their terms, attorneys Dan Freund and later David Rice hosted
board meetings at their law offices. In 2016 the board took a room at UW-Eau
Claire, and currently it meets at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
When annual member meetings included public programs, meeting sites
included the Eau Claire Public Library, Unitarian Universalist Congregation,
and UW-Eau Claire.
The chapter has always been a part of the WCLU, or later the ACLUWI, and authorized to have a representative, usually the chapter president, on the state board of
directors. There is no record of formal reports to or from the state board for
the first three decades, but old-timers remember that chapter president Denny Metzdorf from Chippewa Falls was a popular member during his term in the 1970s because he brought a case of Leinenkugels to each meeting. In 1998 Mildred Larson joined the board through statewide election. Her 20 years of service included two terms as
state board president. Sharing the driving, chapter president Ann Heywood began much more regular attendance at the meetings in Milwaukee and Madison, continuing as
an appointed representative when chapter presidents declined that duty.
State staff served the chapter over the years with general advice on civil liberties questions and on how to handle media and legal questions. Sometimes they directly helped clients the chapter referred to them. They supplied tabling materials and mailing
labels. They provided speakers at chapter events, often Executive Directors Eunice Edgar (until 1992), Chris Ahmuty (until 2016) and recently Chris Ott. They have given the chapter the means to connect with the state and national ACLU issues in practical,
Into the 21st Century
Membership in the chapter was always automatically connected to membership in the ACLU and living in the Chippewa Valley area. Probably many people joined the ACLU without actually realizing they were members of a chapter until they received a
newsletter. A 1970 mailing was sent to 92 members, (72 households). A note in
1996 reported about 88 chapter members. But memberships grew in times of perceived special civil liberties peril, first after the 9/11 attacks and issues involving fear of Muslims, the USA PATRIOT Act, and detentions at Guantanamo. Memberships
dramatically increased after the election of President Donald Trump. The member total in 2011 was 225. The October 2017 newsletter went to 598 member households and an additional 35 donors to the Foundation. The board of directors have been the main
activists for the chapter although others have sometimes attended board
meetings and helped with contacts, information, and supporting activity. In
2010 the chapter started electing high school students to the board of
Every year an important focus of the chapter has been presenting one or more programs for the general public. Some salient ones were “Vouchers, Prayers, and the Future of Public Education” (1996), “Truth in Sentencing” (1999), “The Prison Buildup
and Its Impact on Wisconsin Communities” (2001), “Freedom Under Fire: The USA PATRIOT Act and You” (2003), “R-Rated Movies in the Schools: Freedom to Teach; Freedom to Learn” (2004), “The Death Penalty: Wrong for Wisconsin” (2006), “Alternatives to Incarceration: Drug Courts and Other Strategies” (2007), “Racial Profiling in the Chippewa Valley” (2011), “Can You Hear Me Now? Law Enforcement Surveillance of Internet and Mobile Communications” (2012), “Equal Access to Health
Care: Addressing the Challenges” (2013), “Public Schools and Privatization: What’s at Stake?” (2014), and “Institutional Racism and the Chippewa Valley: An Affirmative
Action Story” (2016).
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”—so goes the ACLU motto. So many variations of civil liberties issues come up year after year at the national, state, and local level. Indeed, a local situation can emerge to make the law of the land, as did the case of
Eau Claire couple Virginia Wolf and Carol Schumacher when their suit to legalize same-sex marriage won in U.S. District Court 7 and reached the U.S. Supreme Court in Wolf v. Walker in 2014. In small steps and big the work goes on to fight for freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and academic freedom; the right to petition
government, due process, privacy, equal access, the vote, humane treatment of
prisoners, reproductive justice, and public education; and freedom from warrantless searches and discrimination based on protected class status. The Chippewa Valley Chapter has faithfully worked for 50 years in that effort.
By Ann Heywood, 10/31/17
Resources: The majority of information in this report came from chapter newsletters and meeting minutes. Patrick George supplied information about the founding in an interview on 10/10/17. John Hibbard’s information came from an interview on 10/17/17.
UW-EC history major Anna Leffel helped in the review of records from 1990-2016.
Drawing by Anders Shafer, based on Ben Shahn’s
Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, for 1998 newsletter.