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A former associate director for the ACLU who says he was demoted and eventually fired for calling out internal racism at the pre-eminent civil rights nonprofit is now suing for discrimination and retaliation.
Robert Jackson filed a lawsuit Tuesday in New York District Court accusing the ACLU of not treating its own Black employees with the kind of equity that one would expect from a bastion of American values, equality, and justice. He says he and his Black colleagues were told to “keep quiet” about their criticisms concerning the organization's lack of leadership diversity, and he claims his bosses eventually tried to push him to quit his job.
“Despite the good the ACLU has done for the Black community outside of its walls, it appears that the scope of its stated mission starts and ends there,” Jackson’s lawsuit claims. “As was made clear to Mr. Jackson, complaints about systemic racism within the ACLU itself are not welcome, nor are the people who speak out.”
For decades, the ACLU has worked to advocate for and defend the American people’s right to free speech, protest and other liberties provided by the Constitution, typically in the court of law.
According to the lawsuit, Jackson’s problems began in December 2019 when Kary Moss, the ACLU’s director, snapped a photo with former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a company employee conference in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated entirely to discussing issues impacting the Black community and what the ACLU could do to help address them.
“Mr. Sessions has spent his career supporting policies that disadvantage and target Black Americans,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Jackson could not understand why Ms. Moss—a leader within the ACLU— would condone Mr. Sessions’ record by smiling next to him in a photo at an event organized for the express purpose of addressing racial inequities Black Americans face.”
Dismayed over the photo, Jackson and several of his colleagues decided to make a speech to the 140 ACLU employees in attendance highlighting the lack of Black leadership. The group didn’t just criticize the ACLU, according to the lawsuit; they offered clear proposals on what could be done to address the disparity.
Among the recommendations were a dedicated pipeline for hiring Black senior leadership, starting an effort to promote people from among the organization’s thousands of employees to leadership roles and converting all internships into paid internships. The employees also asked that Moss apologize for the photo with Sessions.
But Jackson says their actions at the conference drew ire from the organization’s leadership.
“Given the ACLU’s mission to expand civil liberties, including in employment, Mr. Jackson expected Ms. Tian to hear him and support him,” the lawsuit says, referring to the ACLU’s Chief Analytics Officer Lucia Tian. “Instead, she instructed him to ‘keep quiet’ and to be ‘the cooler head in the room.’”
In the months that followed, Jackson alleges that he noticed a shift in how he was treated. The organization cancelled a project he was working on about mass incarceration without explanation and was excluded from team meetings. In January 2020, he received a demotion from associate director to analyst, a position four levels below where he currently was. The demotion also cut his salary nearly in half.
“The ACLU clearly hoped the demotion would cause Mr. Jackson to resign, thereby insulating the Organization from liability for its unlawful conduct,” the lawsuit says.
In May 2020, despite excelling in this new role and earning praise from higher-ups, he was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement during a performance review, and offered him a severance package of one month’s pay if he resigned. Three months after he refused to sign the NDA, Jackson was terminated from his job.
The lawsuit is asking that the organization compensate for economic damages that resulted from his termination and for the legal fees of the case.
Jackson’s attorney, Alex Hartzband, told VICE News that the ACLU has a lot of work to do on the front of racial equity.
“While the ACLU has done worlds of good for the Black community outside of its walls, its campaign of retaliation against Mr. Jackson for complaining about structural racism within the organization is reprehensible,” Hartzband said. “At the ACLU, of all places, employees should feel free to speak out about discrimination without fear of reprisal.”
In April, the ACLU acknowledged the need to add more diverse voices into their ranks. According to their own internal census, only 11.6 percent of their staff identify as Black, despite the nonprofit growing by nearly 80 percent in the last five years. They also announced the “Systemic Equality Initiative,” an internal effort to commit to many of the changes Jackson says he and his colleagues suggested at the conference in 2019.
ACLU spokesman Steve Smith told VICE News that it would not comment on the lawsuit as it does not openly discuss “the details of personnel disputes,” but says that they deny Jackson’s allegations.
“The organization brokers no tolerance for retaliation and discrimination, and we flatly reject the claims in the complaint,” Smith said in an email. “ACLU will respond to the complaint in due course, and the facts surrounding this case will soon become a matter of public record.”