The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada (ACLUNV) is the Silver State’s largest and most active nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The ACLU of Nevada was created by a group of volunteers in 1966 when many Western states had no formal ACLU affiliate and was formally accepted as the state affiliate of the National ACLU in 1967. As an affiliate, many of the ACLU of Nevada’s policy positions flow from the national ACLU, although the Nevada ACLU has the latitude to focus on issues critical to Nevada and to develop policies and priorities that reflect Nevada’s culture and state Constitution.
Nevada’s connection to the national ACLU began decades before becoming a formal state affiliate. Anne Martin, a leading Nevada feminist, suffragist, and politician, served on the ACLU’s National Council from 1920 to 1936. Martin Scanlon, a Reno attorney, served in the early 1930’s as a state correspondent and updated the National ACLU on the status of civil liberties in Nevada.
The Nevada affiliate got its start in a living room in Reno with a group of civil libertarians, attorneys, and academics. Many consider Jack Forbes the catalyst to the beginnings of the ACLU in Nevada. Jack was a professor of Native American history at the University of Nevada, Reno and served as the northern group’s founding President.
Shortly thereafter, Robert Throckmorton, a Las Vegas school principal, spearheaded the formation of a southern group. The separate groups in the north and south formed a statewide organization, with a Southern chapter in Las Vegas and a Northern chapter in Reno-Sparks area, which was coordinated by a statewide Board of Directors. Throckmorton served as the first state-wide President of the Nevada ACLU.
In the early years, the organization had no paid staff and relied on volunteer attorneys and legal directors to shepherd the organization’s legal work. In 1983, the affiliate opened a statewide office in Reno and hired its first Executive Director, James Shields, a former political science professor at UNR. During Shields’ tenure, the affiliate experienced strong growth, with the majority of membership, leadership, and funding coming from Washoe County. In 1986, the organization hired Associate Director Sari Aizley, who led the ACLU’s development in Clark County.
The organization decided to move the main office from Reno to Las Vegas in 1989 to maximize membership and public education opportunities. Chan Hendrick was hired as the first Las Vegas-based Executive Director. Although the staff served a statewide role, the organization continued to have separate Northern and Southern chapters.
The national ACLU helped to reorganize the affiliate in 1995 and recruited Gary Peck to serve as Executive Director. Peck unified the chapters into one statewide affiliate, with standing offices in both Reno and Las Vegas. In the mid-90’s, the ACLU of Nevada hired its first General Counsel, Allen Lichtenstein. With Lichtenstein, the affiliate could take on complex First Amendment litigation and earned a national reputation for securing full access to the sidewalks, plazas, and parks of Clark County, including the famed Las Vegas “Strip,” for the purposes of free expression.
The ACLU remains Nevada’s leading civil liberties and civil rights organization. The affiliate prides itself on its non-partisan and non-ideological approach to policy, advocacy, legislation, and litigation, and often surprises the public with cases and clients that defy expectations. From our work on efforts to reform the criminal justice system by virtue of our involvement on the legislature’s Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice and Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission, to pursuing more government transparency on the Open Meeting Law Task Force, and standing up for minority communities on the the Clark County Sheriff's Metro Multicultural Affairs Committee, our dynamic litigation docket that covers the entire spectrum of constitutional and other important legal issues, to the central role we play in public policy and a host of advocacy arenas, including police abuse and accountability, racial justice, LGBT equality, voting rights, and reproductive freedom, the ACLU of Nevada continues to protect the rights of all Nevadans.
In 2016, we celebrated 50 years of Civil Liberties in the Silver State and look forward to the next 50!