Columns

Not Your Father’s ACLU

Karen Velie and Stew Jenkins

Clarification: In an earlier version of the post, Stew Jenkins was incorrectly identified as representing Karen Velie in the current defamation case.

Last Saturday, I attended an event organized by the San Luis Obispo chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Dubbed “Constitution Day,” the event helped bring the local chapter out of obscurity to educate attendees about the Constitution. In short order, some of the board members were quick to rebuke my presence and make me feel unwelcome. I was interested in volunteering and bringing balance to the ACLU board, but the local chapter was clearly not interested.

Then again, several of the board members are directly involved with CalCoastNews.

The ACLU recognizes that truly defamatory speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, they recognize libel as an legitimate exception to First Amendment protection. Given that, it’s puzzling and disingenuous to see CalCoastNews being hailed by the local ACLU chapter as a model organization worth fighting for — especially when the website failed to dismiss the lawsuit against them on constitutional grounds.

A few weeks earlier, I received a deposition subpoena from CalCoastNews for a defamation lawsuit that I’m not involved in. According to their lawyer David Vogel, I’m “involved” as a witness. It appears they’re retaliating against me for criticizing them and their defamatory content.

At “Constitution Day,” I introduced myself to attorney Stew Jenkins, who is chair of the ACLU SoCal San Luis Obispo County Chapter and CalCoastNews’ attorney. He refused to shake my hand and called me a “snot.”

Last year, Jenkins sent me a letter (on behalf of CalCoastNews), demanding that I apologize and retract factual statements I made about their current case and their defamatory reporting practices. Jenkins stated that my negative and rhetorical opinions of them would “increase the exposure to liability.”

At the same event, CalCoastNews’ co-publisher Karen Velie was introduced to attendees as the board secretary. According to her short ACLU biography, Velie is described as being a “fearless publisher” and a “tireless advocate for Freedom of the Press.” Velie is also the defendant in the defamation lawsuit. In 2014, the “tireless” free press advocate went after my former employer for my coverage of the lawsuit. She later conspired with my employer to invade my privacy when I wasn’t on company time.

At no point did the local ACLU chapter mention to members or prospective members that an election is taking place to fill open seats on the Board of Directors.

It’s clear the ACLU SoCal San Luis Obispo County Chapter is more interested in promoting CalCoastNews as a pious marketing ploy than protecting the free expression of their critics. This illustrates a perverse mockery of ACLU’s historical brand.