Civil society

A look back at the first 50 years of the ACLU of Nevada

Policy Director Holly Welborn is one of two ACLU employees based in Reno. An additional six work out of the main office in Las Vegas.

Policy Director Holly Welborn is one of two ACLU employees based in Reno. An additional six work out of the main office in Las Vegas.


In 1920, just after World War I, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, fearing a communist revolution, ordered hundreds of foreign citizens deported and had thousands of leftists and anarchists arrested without warrants. Nine people organized to protest the abuse of civil liberties. Thus was born the national American Civil Liberties Union. The group soon broadened its scope to include protecting free speech and combating racism and discrimination. By the mid 1960s, the ACLU's national group had 80,000 members and a long list of civil rights to defend.

That's when the ACLU of Nevada was formed in Reno.

“Around a quarter, maybe fewer, of states, had chapters,” said Richard Siegel, long-time board president, currently “unofficial, emeritus” adviser. “A dozen people or so signed the founding document in 1966.” The Nevada group was deemed an official affiliate by ACLU national in 1967.

Nevada’s laws prohibiting non-whites from attending school and prohibiting interracial marriage had only been repealed a few years earlier, in 1959.

Siegel, then a recently hired political science professor at the University of Nevada joined the local group soon after its inception. Another early member was Elmer Rusco, Siegel’s colleague from the political science department.

According to Nevada Humanities’ Online Nevada Encyclopedia, in the 1940s, when he was fresh out of high school, “on a bus trip through Virginia, Rusco inadvertently sat next to an African-American passenger. Obeying the segregation customs, the passenger rose and went to stand in the rear section of the bus. This firsthand experience with the demeaning system of racial segregation was, in Rusco’s words, ’a shock to my system.’” He went on to study racial inequality as a scholar and campaign against it as an activist.

As for Siegel’s motivation for joining a civil liberties group, he had been raised in a tradition of social justice. “My father had been president of his synagogue in Brooklyn, New York,” he said, his Brooklyn accent still half intact after half a century in the West. “My mother had been president of the sisterhood of the synagogue, so I think that in part that started my involvement.” Being Jewish, he said, “has a political justice component, at least on its left.” (He pointed out that “probably a third to a quarter” of the leadership of ACLU of Nevada in the 1970s was Jewish.)

Another important contributing factor to some of the early members’ worldviews was their knowledge of world politics. “The UNR political science department produced key parts of the first 15 years of leadership of the organization,” said Siegel, listing, in addition to Rusco and himself, fellow political science professor Jim Shields, who would, in 1983, become the group’s first executive director.

“Of course we as political scientists had knowledge and sensitivity to civil liberties issues,” said Siegel. “I started out teaching Soviet affairs. … You teach about a quote-unquote totalitarian society—you’re sensitive to human rights issues.”

Establishment years

At the beginning, the ACLU of Nevada operated on a shoestring. There were no paid employees, only volunteers. They relied on the Mountain States Office in Denver for legal assistance.

Siegel volunteered as a lobbyist, working 10 to 25 hours a week during legislative sessions while teaching full-time, writing and publishing. He also found time to co-found the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty and serve as co-president of the Jewish Community Counsel of Northern Nevada.

“We started working on fairly local things,” he said. “Marijuana—crackdowns on possession.”

In the ’70s, he said, “We won an early case for access for the physically disabled at UNR.” The group also focused on gender issues then. “We testified constantly on the Equal Rights Amendment, which ultimately lost. And we were also involved in helping to find the issue of Roe v. Wade into the Nevada Constitution. It was passed by a substantial margin.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, the ACLU of Nevada saw an increase in diversity. The national ACLU pushed the affiliate to add minority representation to what Siegel called an “essentially all-white” organization. The group was able to comply, in part by depending on the racially diverse faculty of the newly forming law school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

During that same era, Shields was interested in gay rights. “We made national news by supporting the gay rodeo,” said Siegel.

Another turning point came in 1989, when the ACLU of Nevada moved from Reno to Las Vegas, largely because the southern city by then had a larger population.

“I was reluctant to do this because I knew that our stronger activist base was in Washoe [County],” Siegel said. “I was afraid we would lose the momentum if we moved to Vegas. It turned out that the transition … helped us form a stronger affiliate.”

Beginning in the 1990s, Allen Lichtenstein—who Siegel called “one of the best first amendment attorneys in Northern Nevada”—made freedom of speech and freedom of press cases a major focus of the ACLU of Nevada.

It took quite a while for the group to establish a financial foothold. “We did not have financial stability for most of the first 35 years,” said Siegel. “We were like many cause organizations. Every $10,000 was critically important to us—and rarely did we get a donation that was $10,000.”

Fundraising picked up under Gary Peck, who was executive director for 13 years beginning in 1996. “He was the best one-on-one fundraiser,” said Siegel. This was before the widespread advent of the internet, so one-on-one fundraising meant inviting people to lunch.

“Around 2000, we got two major inheritances worth, together, well over a million dollars, from people we absolutely had no knowledge of,” he said. “That was completely blind luck. The organization is still financially stable as a result of those inheritances.”

Only in Nevada

“I think it was assumed that every state needed to have the ACLU affiliate,” said Siegel. “It’s accepted in the ACLU universe that the only way you can deal with the issues at hand in a given state is by having a presence in that state.”

“A state is permitted to allow for more freedom than the federal government in some circumstances,” said Holly Welborn, ACLU of Nevada’s Policy Director. “Nevada’s constitution allows for things like concealed carry, open carry in some circumstances. … We do advocate for a person’s right to own a gun under the Nevada Constitution.”

Other efforts that differentiate the Nevada group from ACLU affiliates in other states, said Welborn, include supporting prostitutes’ rights, and distributing “know-your-rights” cards at Burning Man to advise participants who are stopped for a search on how to communicate with law officers.

Also characteristic of Nevada is a lack of punitive immigration policies. “In many states, including California and Arizona, they passed laws where people could be stopped in their cars,” Siegel explained. “Nevada passed very few laws if any, which targeted the undocumented immigrant community.” He attributed the lack of such laws to the support of the hotel/casino industry. “They wanted the labor of undocumented people, and it wasn’t a matter of constitutional law or principle,” he said. “They wanted the labor. We were working from a constitutional perspective. They were, I think, working from a more practical business position.”

Over the decades, one issue the ACLU of Nevada has consistently worked on has been inmate rights. “Inmates have always been the most frequent letter writers, communicators,” said Siegel.

A 2015 bill that the ACLU of Nevada supported made life-without-parole sentences for juveniles illegal.

Robert Reed was 16 when he was convicted of first-degree murder after a stint in illegal handgun sales culminated in a showdown, during which he said an assailant threatened his life. He believes that the charge was inflated under the tough-on-crime administration of Dick Gammick, who was Washoe County District Attorney until 2014.

“Both times when I had case attorneys who took the time to see it, they were like, ’This is a voluntary manslaughter case at the most,’” Reed said.

“My sentence was two consecutive 10-to-lifes,” he said. Reed ended up serving 22 years in prison, long enough to earn an associate’s degree, begin a career as a dental technician making dentures for fellow prisoners, and become fluent in legal processes and terminology. Latinate terms like habeas corpus and nolo contendere are part of the natural flow of his sentences.

After years of appeals, Reed, with the help of his family and his attorney, appeared to be inching toward potential release. But he didn’t know for certain.

“The only thing that people really look forward to is when a law gets changed by the legislature, because then there’s no ands, ifs or buts about it,” he said.

A law did get changed by the legislature.

The ACLU of Nevada had been among those pushing for AB267, a law that would eliminate life-without-parole sentences for minors. “Looking at the way the young person functions, the evidence is just surmounting that the young person can be rehabilitated,” said Welborn.

Reed had been serving life-with-parole, and the passage of AB267 in March 2105 made him immediately eligible for parole. He was released in July 2015.

Now, Reed is working at a glass business, reestablishing his credit, working out daily, and serving as his niece’s weightlifting coach. He said he has a good relationship with his parole officer, who approved his plans to fly to New York to see family for Thanksgiving.

After Election Day

As the national ACLU was being founded following the Palmer Raids almost 100 years ago, top concerns included deportation and discrimination. After President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims and his stated intent to deport immigrants, those concerns are again at the forefront.

“The phone calls come into our offices,” Welborn said. “The day after the election I answered two phone calls, one from a young man worrying about when his mother would be deported, one from a young black child who was told by her white peers to move to the back of the bus.”

For people concerned about deportation, Welborn said, “We’re working on know-your-rights documents for immigrants, [including] undocumented immigrants, so they know their rights under state and federal law.” The group plans to circulate these documents on social media, hand them out at events, and distribute them through partner organizations, schools and churches.

Welborn told the child who’d called about the incident on the bus that schools have “affirmative duty to protect students from harassment” and called the Washoe County School District to discuss the matter.

After Election Day this year, the ACLU was among the groups seeing sizeable, sudden increases in donations. Welborn said that the national ACLU took in about $948,000 in donations on Nov. 8 alone, and that the figure is now close to $10 million. There’s been an increase in donations to the ACLU of Nevada also, the amount of which has not yet been determined.

“There are real concerns here. The rhetoric throughout the campaign could come to fruition,” she said, offering a reason for the increase.

Since the election, she’s also seen a surge in volunteers. “I think the last count we had [as of Nov. 22] was 82, but we keep getting more people every day,” she said. The group has traditionally relied on interns from the social work program at UNR and the law school at UNLV to assist with research and policy work, but, said Welborn, “Until now we did not have an established volunteer program. We have people who want to donate legal resources, graphic design, social workers. We are looking for creative ways to get them energized and keep them engaged.”

One new volunteer, Isabel Youngs, a political science major who plans to graduate from UNR in December, has put in about 12 hours since the election. She said she was motivated to donate time to “make sure I keep my loved ones safe.”

“Most people I know face some risk,” said Youngs. “I have friends who are undocumented. They face deportation. I have family that relies on the Affordable Care Act, including myself. Friends and loves ones who are LGBT, who are racial minorities.” She’s concerned that the Trump administration’s policies could affect any of them negatively.

Sam Stein, a seasonal wildland firefighter and UNR graduate student studying public administration, also recently started volunteering.

“After the election I was just seeing a lot of the fear around people in our community that this anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-minority rhetoric was going to be coming to pass,” said Stein. He’d attended the Nov. 9 protest in downtown Reno and reported “seeing people in fear, looking like the rug had just been pulled out from under them.” That led him to call the ACLU of Nevada to offer his time. He’s been researching legislation in other states that protects or expands the rights of undocumented workers.

“I told them, whatever helps, I’m hoping to put in as much time as I can before my semester starts up again at school,” said Stein.

As part of its 50-year celebration, the ACLU of Nevada honored these Nevadans with awards at a Nov. 4 luncheon in Reno.

Jan Jones Blackhurst, Caesars Entertainment Corporation Executive and former Las Vegas mayor

Paula Francis, Las Vegas television journalist

Colin Seale, Las Vegas attorney, and founder/CEO of ThinkLaw

Sheila Leslie, former Nevada State Senator and Assemblywoman (Leslie is also a political columnist for RN&R.)

Richard Siegel, founding member and past president of the ACLU of Nevada and past board member of the National ACLU