COLUMBIA — A new civil rights organization for Missouri is becoming formalized after a group of activists decided there was a need for a "truly statewide" organization.
The idea for the Missouri Civil Liberties Association grew out of a disagreement between Eastern Missouri's and Mid-Missouri’s American Civil Liberties Union affiliates earlier this year, which ended in the dissolution of mid-Missouri's chapter, organizers said. But that’s not the only reason the new entity was formed, said Dan Viets, a Columbia attorney and one of the group coordinators.
The Missouri Civil Liberties Association will hold an organizational meeting at 1:30 p.m Sunday at Rock Bridge Christian Church, 301 West Green Meadows Rd.
“We’re going to form an organization that is more statewide in scope and broader in philosophical appeal,” Viets said.
Although there are Eastern Missouri and Kansas and Western Missouri ACLU affiliates, Viets said the ACLU is not truly statewide in Missouri because it is only in those two areas and no longer in mid-Missouri.
He said the Eastern Missouri affiliate deprived all members of the ability to amend bylaws and have their own leadership and agenda. Viets also said it dissolved the Mid-Missouri affiliate. The Missouri Civil Liberties Association, also known as the MoCLA, will allow its members to decide on their policies and bylaws.
However, Brenda Jones, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said the Mid-Missouri affiliate did not dissolve, but that it is on hiatus and that the ACLU is still involved in the area.
Viets disagreed. "There's nothing that remains in mid-Missouri," he said.
Despite the disagreement, the two organizations said they are on good terms and that they most likely will end up working together on some projects.
"There's enough civil liberties work to go around for everyone," Jones said. "Anytime someone wants to bring new resources to our work, I think it's great. More voices, more fighters, more for the people."
Viets said the Missouri Civil Liberties Association has many of the same goals as the ACLU, even though they are separate organizations. The Missouri association aims to promote understanding of the importance of protecting civil liberties, limit the power of government over individual citizens and help those who don’t have the resources to help themselves, he said.
The group will consist of a variety of members, including current ACLU members, and many libertarians. But coordinator John Coffman said the new association welcomes people who care about civil liberties from across the political spectrum to fill the civil rights void in mid-Missouri.
"There are activists throughout the state who are looking for a new organization closely tied to the grass roots of individuals that doesn't pay too much attention to political party affiliation," he said. "It's interesting how many folks are coming together from different perspectives and sitting down and talking about what they have in common."
The first battle the MoCLA has taken on is Linn State Technical College's new policy instituting random drug testing of students. The group wrote a letter to the president of the public college stating that the policy was illegal and that the college needs to stop, or the MoCLA will file a lawsuit, Viets said.
Viets said a lawyer for the college wrote back and said the school has good intentions, which Viets said he does not question. Still, what the institution is doing violates the rights of students, he said.
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri is also involved in the Linn State Technical College case — the group is representing eight clients and received an injunction to stop the school from proceeding with the testing, Jones said.
Viets and Coffman are still taking steps to formalize the creation of the Missouri Civil Liberties Association. A meeting will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Rock Bridge Christian Church, 301 West Green Meadows Rd. Coffman said anyone who is interested can come and have input on the bylaws, structure and priorities of the organization.
The MoCLA has yet to establish a procedure for how citizens can get the group's help. Viets said the group doesn't have the resources for everyone who deserves it, but it plans to tackle issues that will make a difference for a large number of people.
"There's never a need to go to court or lobby to protect popular speech," Viets said. "It is the unpopular speech that needs protection. It is important that there be groups like the Missouri Civil Liberties Association and the ACLU that fill that role."