11-19-2014- Somerville/Medford, MA - Founders of the new ACLU Chapter at Tufts Theodore Cahill and Nina Oat speak at their first official meeting. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts students bring ACLU chapter to campus

A group of Tufts students has come together to launch a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the Hill, hosting a general information meeting (GIM) on Nov. 12. The ACLU, founded in 1920, is an organization that works to protect the individual rights granted by the Constitution by acting as a voice in judiciary and legislative processes, according to its website.

Co-founder and co-head Nina Oat explained that the causes the ACLU has championed in the past hold a special resonance with her. However, her dream of creating an on-campus chapter of the ACLU came to fruition this year after Executive Director of of the ACLU of Massachusetts Carol Rose gave a lecture at Tufts in September to celebrate Constitution Day.

“In her presentation, [Rose] mentioned that there aren’t a lot of universities around here that have chapters and Tufts doesn’t have one and she would love to have one … so I talked to her … about going about starting a chapter earlier this year,” Oat, a senior, said.

She explained that Rose passed along the name of a representative from the ACLU whose role includes increasing involvement at the local level. Oat said she spoke with him and then began the six-month process of applying for recognition at Tufts.

Oat added that without recognition from the Tufts Community Union Judiciary, the group lacks many of the typical components that comprise an on-campus advocacy organization, such as an executive board and official head.

However, with the backing of their faculty advisor, Teresa Walsh, lecturer of political science, and the strong turnout of around 30 students at the GIM, Oat and co-heads Teddy Cahill and Brandon Katz said that they remain confident that the on-campus ACLU chapter has the potential to grow to assume a strong activist role on campus.

“I hope we can be a presence on campus, getting issues out there that maybe aren’t discussed as much,” Cahill, a first-year and co-founder of the group, said. “For a campus that is as politically active as Tufts, a lot of issues the ACLU addresses — I haven’t seen a huge amount of awareness of them.”

The GIM, which was open to all undergraduate students, was primarily run by Matthew Allen, a representative of the Massachusetts’ state chapter of the ACLU, who used the gathering as a platform to showcase the issues the organization wants to address and the inequities it strives to ameliorate, according to Cahill and Katz.

Cahill explained that his hope is to form a small, devoted contingent of core members that will attend most of the weekly meetings and then build up a broader base of students who could be called upon to engage in more specific efforts of the group, such as discussions or campaigns, that pertain to their particular areas of interest.

Katz, also a first-year, mentioned taking direction from the ACLU of Massachusetts’ causes and campaigns to formulate the Tufts chapter’s policy interests and goals.

“We have yet to decide what issues we want to focus on, but during our meeting with Matthew Allen, we went over a bunch, so we will vote as a group on those and see where it goes,” he said. “There are issues of privacy [and] police accountability.”

Cahill also detailed various causes that the organization might want to lend its support to in the future, many of which are related to issues of student rights. A topic of particular salience among Tufts students that the ACLU chapter is considering taking on is the zoning ordinance in areas surrounding campus, according to CahillMedford law restricts housing units to three or fewer unrelated residents, while Somerville imposes similar controls that limit housing to four unrelated individuals.

“At the very minimum, I would like us to be able to start these conversations on campus about civil liberties,” Katz said. “Ideally, in the best of all worlds, maybe we start campaigns for some issues and maybe we do have some impact with Tufts policy or Somerville law.”

All three organizers cited navigating the hurdles to recognition and requirements in place by Tufts and the ACLU as vital steps to kick-starting the group’s efforts. 

“I think that there are a lot of students on campus who are interested in these kinds of ideas and issues but don’t necessarily know how best to contribute to change,” Oat said. “I think that the chapter can provide a really great framework and a really strong association with a really great organization to help us figure out a better way to go about making changes that we want to see happen.”

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