ACLU News 12-18-96: Free Speech, Parental Rights, Education (fwd)

Francisco Lopez (
Thu, 19 Dec 1996 07:48:26 -0500 (EST)

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* New Jersey Court Delivers Historic Free Speech Decision
In Condominium Case

* Supreme Court Grants Mississippi Mother Right to Appeal
Loss of Children

* Vermont Supreme Court To Hear Oral Arguments in Property Tax Suit

New Jersey Court Delivers Historic
Free Speech Decision In Condominium Case

Tuesday, December 17, 1996

NEWARK, NJ -- The Appellate Division of Superior Court today issued an
historic free speech ruling requiring a private residential condominium to
give political candidates a right to reply to messages distributed to
residents by the condominium association.

The ruling came in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of
New Jersey on behalf of the Guttenberg Taxpayers and Rentpayers Association
against the Galaxy Towers Condominium Association, a residential community
which is home to approximately 25 per cent of the registered voters in the
town of Guttenberg.

The unanimous decision issued by a three-judge appellate panel summarily
affirmed an opinion issued April 8, 1996 by Judge Martin I. Greenberg of the
Hudson County Chancery Division.

Judge Greenberg had ordered the condominium association to allow opposition
candidates for local office to distribute election materials in the three
Galaxy high-rise buildings "in the same manner and to the same extent" that
the association distributes materials endorsing candidates for those offices.
That ruling had been appealed to the Appellate Division by the condominium

Professor Frank Askin of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, who
handled the case on behalf of the ACLU, called today's decision "historic."

"This is the first ruling by an appellate court anywhere in this country to
recognize that private residential communities cannot turn themselves into
political isolation booths," Askin said. "As more and more Americans move
into such private communities, it is essential for the health of our
democracy, that all political views have an equal opportunity to be heard in
such environments."

Today's ruling was based on the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court in
its landmark shopping-mall decision of December 1994. Professor Askin and
the Rutgers clinic also handled that case for the ACLU. In the shopping mall
ruling, the Supreme Court held that privately-owned regional shopping malls
were public forums under the New Jersey Constitution and had to allow the
distribution of political and advocacy materials subject to reasonable

Askin said today that the new decision was more evidence that the New Jersey
Constitution and courts lead the nation in recognizing the need to find new
ways to protect freedom of speech in a society where more and more public
space is being privatized.

The Guttenberg case began in April 1994 when the Condominium Association
refused to allow the taxpayers' group to respond to the association's flyers
urging support by Galaxy residents for a slate of candidates for the local
Board of Education. The taxpayers' group was supporting an opposing slate.

The case was initially dismissed by the Chancery Court, but the Appellate
Division remanded it for a full trial based on the Supreme Court's
intervening shopping mall decision. That trial resulted in Judge Greenberg's
opinion last April. The opinion was affirmed today by the panel consisting
of Judges Thomas Shebell, David Baime and Paul Levy.
Supreme Court Grants Mississippi Mother
Right to Appeal Loss of Children

Monday, December 16, 1996

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court today ruled in a case brought by the American
Civil Liberties Union that Mississippi may not deny a mother the opportunity
to appeal the termination of her parental rights solely because she could not
afford to pay $2,352.36 in court fees.

In a 6-to-3 opinion delivered by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, the high court ruled
that Mississippi violated the mother's Fourteenth Amendment due process and
equal protection rights, describing the permanent loss of parental rights as
"an interest far more precious than any property right."

"When such fundamental rights are at stake, the assets in a mother's bank
account should not determine her access to the judicial system," said Robert
McDuff, an attorney from Jackson, Miss., who argued the case before the Court
in cooperation with the ACLU.

Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU's national legal director, said: "There are few
interests in civil litigation more important than those implicated in
parental termination cases. The Constitution requires that a poor mother has
as much right to defend her parental rights as a rich one."

The plaintiff in the case, Melissa Lumpkin Brooks (known in court papers as
"M.L.B."), took her case to the nation's high court to overturn a state
supreme court ruling which had refused to waive the administrative court fee
that prevented her from appealing the loss of her two children.

Today's decision arose out of a custody dispute that began in 1993 when
Brooks' former husband, "S.L.J.," filed a termination lawsuit so that his new
wife could adopt the two children. The lawsuit charged that Brooks did not
visit her children frequently and was behind on child support payments, two
claims which Brooks contests.

Although no charges of abuse or mistreatment were made, a state judge
nonetheless granted S.L.J.'s request and severed all parental rights between
Brooks and her two children, who were then aged seven and nine. Brooks
attempted to appeal the ruling, but was told that state law required her to
pay the cost of transferring 1169 pages of court transcripts and other
papers, which at $2.00 per page, totaled more than two thousand dollars.

The decision in <A HREF="
html">M.L.B. v. S.L.J.</A> can be found at
Vermont Supreme Court To Hear
Oral Arguments in Property Tax Suit

Monday, December 16, 1996

BURLINGTON, VT -- The Vermont Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this
week to decide whether the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties
Union to overturn the state's educational funding system should go to trial.

Oral arguments in other cases originally scheduled for December have been
postponed until 1997, but a one-hour hearing in the educational
equity/property tax case is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 18.

The Court will decide whether Superior Court Judge John Meaker was correct in
throwing out two of the three constitutional arguments advanced by the ACLU,
which is seeking to have them reinstated before the case goes to trial. The
State of Vermont wants the Justices to dismiss the lawsuit entirely, arguing
that the admitted inequities in educational opportunity and property taxes
from town to town within the state do not violate the U.S. or Vermont

Both sides have submitted written briefs outlining their positions and
replying to the arguments of the other side since they jointly appealed
Meaker's October decision to limit the scope of the trial to questions
involving the Vermont Constitution's equal protection clauses.

"We're pleased that the Court has apparently put the case on the fast track,"
said ACLU Executive Director Leslie Williams. "Property tax reform is the
major issue on Vermonters minds just now, and this lawsuit is pivotal. The
decisions made now and in trial will provide guidance to the legislature as
it decides what is the fairest way to pay for educating Vermont's children
while making sure that every child has an equal opportunity to be educated."

<<For more information about the lawsuit, see the <A HREF="
com/acluvt/home.html">ACLU of Vermont</A>'s web site at>>

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