The ACLU's Caitlin Borgmann on Trump, Charlottesville, and why the First Amendment is the least of her worries 

The day Donald Trump was elected, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that if the president-elect tried to act on his slew of constitutionally dubious campaign promises, "We'll see him in court."

It took only a week of Trump's presidency to come to that. On Jan. 27, Trump signed an executive order implementing his ban on immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries. The next morning, the ACLU and other groups filed suit on behalf of two Iraqi men who had been detained at JFK airport in New York, winning a temporary injunction that halted Trump's ban.

The #resistance had scored its first win, and donations flooded to its legal leader. America's oldest civil liberties organization has reportedly raised $83 million in online donations since Trump's election, while its membership rolls soar.

Almost as quickly, the honeymoon between progressives and the ACLU ended after violence erupted at a "Unite the Right" rally convened by tiki-torch-bearing, gun-toting, Dodge Challenger-driving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. City officials there had denied the alt-right organizers a permit to rally at a congested downtown park, until the ACLU's Virginia chapter intervened successfully on their behalf. It wasn't the sort of court battle members of the #resistance had in mind.

In the days that followed, ACLU of Montana Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann issued a statement clarifying the organization's position on the First Amendment, then testified before the Helena City Commission in support of its decision to remove from a city park a fountain honoring Confederate soldiers.

Borgmann, a Hellgate High School graduate, took over as the ACLU of Montana's executive director in 2015, becoming only the second person to lead the state chapter, which was founded in 1988. Now Borgmann is trying to manage an unprecedented spike in membership, fend off Trumpian assaults on civil liberties and explain why her organization goes to court for Nazis—all without losing sight of the social wrongs that have plagued Montana since long before Trump ever took to Twitter. As Borgmann prepared to kick off her first public statewide tour this month, we caught up with her in the ACLU's Helena office to talk about Trump, Charlottesville and picking the organization's battles in Montana.




Indy: Why are you making this statewide tour?

Caitlin Borgmann: We don't have as many opportunities to get to certain parts of the state, especially eastern Montana and up on the Hi-line, so we really wanted to have an opportunity for me to meet with members all across the state and just anyone who's interested in the ACLU. We're doing a couple of different phases because it's such a big state.

click to enlarge COVER ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA
  • cover illustration by Kou Moua

Is there any particular reason you're doing that outreach now?

I've only been executive director for two years. The first year was really getting my feet under me and understanding the organization better. Now, I have more of an opportunity to do more outreach and focus more on communicating about the ACLU to the public. But it's also true that that coincided with a huge surge in interest in the ACLU since the election.

What does that surge look like in Montana, in terms of your own donations and membership?

Our statewide membership has more than tripled. It hasn't made as huge of a difference in our financial picture. Certainly it's had a huge impact at the national level, and we've seen some financial benefit, particularly through financial relationships we have with the national ACLU that we've always had. Some of that money from national finds its way into Montana. I think the bigger difference we've felt in Montana is the interest level in our work and the number of members who aren't necessarily donating at high levels, but feel strongly enough about the organization to join us as a member, which is wonderful.

Does that spike in interest affect your ability to operate and advocate in Montana?

You don't have to be a member to take action with the ACLU, so people can sign up for our action alerts on our website, sign petitions and engage in other calls to action without joining as a formal member. But it's always helpful to have a robust membership, so I think it will definitely help with our policy advocacy work in particular.

Do you think everyone who has joined or made first-time donations over the past year understood what they were signing up for, as far as all aspects of the ACLU's work?

It's hard to know. I think many people who signed on after the election were concerned about a broad array of civil liberties issues. So I think a lot of new members have joined the ACLU because they know we cover a wide range of issues. Having said that, I do think that people who sign on because of a particular issue may not be aware of the full waterfront of civil rights and civil rights we protect. And I think a lot of people don't know exactly how we do our work. They have this vague understanding that the ACLU protects civil liberties, and [that] it's important that we be active and strong in Montana and nationally, but they don't know exactly how we go about doing our work—that we file lawsuits and advocate for policy change and are active in the Legislature.

The ACLU was knighted as a leader in the "resistance" after pledging to fight President Trump's policies in court, particularly on immigration. Is that how you see yourselves?

Absolutely, but not in a partisan sense. The ACLU has always fought the actions of any administration that infringes on civil liberties. There were things in the Obama administration that we fought, including drone warfare. But certainly the Trump administration has presented us with a breathtaking array of attacks on civil liberties.

click to enlarge ACLU Montana Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann
  • ACLU Montana Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann

What are the areas you see as being under attack by this administration?

LGBT rights. Of course, we now have this ban on transgender persons serving in the military. The Muslim ban. We've had serious threats to immigration since President Trump took office. At the moment, we're very concerned about threats to the DACA program for youth immigrants that has allowed them to stay in the country despite their status. Those are just a couple. Reproductive rights is another big one, with legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. The Trump administration has not been terribly effective so far—in achieving legislative change, for example—but the damage that's been done already is frightening, and he has spoken about a lot more things that we have yet to see.

In the last few weeks, Charlottesville has put a spotlight on the ACLU's work on First Amendment issues that are more controversial and don't fall neatly along partisan lines. After the demonstrations and violence there, you put out a statement reiterating the importance of free speech. What were you trying to accomplish, and could you explain how you approach that question?

First of all, I just want to acknowledge how horrible the violence was that occurred in Charlottesville and how strongly the ACLU condemns it, including the terrorist attack that claimed the life of a young woman. None of that is protected speech. Protected speech does not include violence. The ACLU has never supported violent speech. We support peaceful speech, albeit potentially controversial and hateful speech. The reason is that allowing the government to ever choose what kinds of speech, what viewpoints it will allow and not allow, is a very scary proposition.

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