The following op-ed was originally printed in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
In September 2011, Sarah Jones* wrote a single bad check for $28.93. It would change the course of her life forever. Over the next six years she was arrested at least seven times and accumulated $2,657 in court costs – all because of a single bounced check and a court system that jailed people who could not afford to pay court costs incurred from bounced checks.
A lawsuit by the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster finally brought reform to Sherwood’s infamous “hot check” court in 2017, ensuring that people are no longer jailed for court fines and fees they can't afford to pay. But Sarah’s ordeal is a reminder that the fight for justice never stays won.
A half-century since our founding, the ACLU of Arkansas is still fighting for a more just and equitable America, especially on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalized whose rights are often the first to be infringed.
We’ve stood up to protect the rights of students, journalists, panhandlers and people with disabilities. We fought back against unconstitutional police practices and worked to shut down debtors’ prisons. We’ve safeguarded the freedom of speech and battled to protect the right to vote. And we’ve fought to protect religious liberty, combat systemic racism, uphold abortion rights, and defend immigrant communities.
What links these disparate causes is an unshakeable belief in human dignity and a commitment to the fundamental rights the Constitution guarantees to all of us.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights give us the freedom to practice our own religion and the right to be free from unwarranted intrusion into our personal decisions. They guarantee the right to freedom of expression, to due process, and the right to be treated fairly and equally under the law.
Importantly, these protections are not confined to those who subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, who earn a certain income, who belong to a specific race or gender – and many are not limited to those who happened to be born on American soil.
Yet year after year, there are attempts to deny these fundamental rights and discriminate against people on the basis of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, or how much money they earn.
While we’ve come a long way over the last half century, the march for justice and equality is far from finished.
We have a criminal justice system that criminalizes people for their poverty, perpetuates racial oppression and devastates Black and brown communities. Immigrant families and communities are being torn apart and terrorized by the Trump administration’s mass deportation agenda. And Arkansas still lacks comprehensive protections that would protect LGBTQ Arkansans from being discriminated against for being themselves.
That’s why the fight for justice and liberty takes all of us. Defending the values we share doesn’t require a law degree: just a willingness to stand up for what’s right – whether that’s rallying at the State Capitol, donating to a cause, or writing to our elected officials.
During this season of thanks, we are especially grateful to our members, supporters, and volunteers. The number of card-carrying ACLU of Arkansas members has more than doubled since 2016, and we now have more than 9,000 members and supporters across the state.
As we wrap up our 50th anniversary year we are more dedicated than ever to keeping up the fight for justice and liberty – and daring to create a more perfect union for all.
*Name has been changed