A new Rogue Valley civil liberties organization announces its emergence today, promising to work to protect citizens' civil liberties through educational outreach, ongoing investigations, policy reform and legal assistance.

A new Rogue Valley civil liberties organization announced its emergence on Monday, promising to work to protect citizens' civil liberties through educational outreach, ongoing investigations, policy reform and legal assistance.

Eleven civil liberties advocates, including American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ralph Temple, former Ashland City Council members Eric Navickas and Cate Hartzell, and environmental activist Julie Norman, announced their board positions in the founding of the Southern Oregon Chapter of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, or CLDC.

Ralph Temple, chairman of the new CLDC chapter, said he and 10 others have comprised the bulk of the board of the local chapter of the ACLU. Temple and others will continue to be members of the national organization, but all 11 resigned from the local ACLU board in mid-March, he said.

Temple said he and others sometimes felt constrained by the state and national leadership of the larger civil rights organization. They ultimately determined to switch their allegiance and focus to "a leaner and meaner organization," he said, referring to the newly formed CLDC group. "The CLDC is more active and more locally focused," Temple said. "We feel we will have more freedom in this new organization, and we will be better able to accomplish more of our goals."

The mass exodus of the Southern Oregon chapter of the ACLU board members left only three board members still sitting. ACLU's leadership at the state level has temporarily suspended the local ACLU charter until a new board can be established, Temple said.

Calls to the state ACLU offices were not immediately returned Friday.

Temple noted that the new Southern Oregon Chapter is the third CLDC chapter in the Pacific Northwest. Each member was formerly associated with the ACLU of Oregon in Portland.

Their projects in the Rogue Valley have included winning the reversal of a ban on leafleting at the Ashland Post Office, negotiating improvements in public demonstration rules in Medford, successfully opposing minimum-mandatory city fines in Ashland, working on a federal class-action suit challenging the treatment of demonstrators, and investigating practices in the Jackson County Jail, Temple said.

"We are still working on that (jail) investigation," Temple said.

The recent decision by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to unanimously award an undisclosed settlement to a man who alleges two Jackson County sheriff's deputies beat him while he was lodged in the Jackson County Jail in July 2007 illustrates the lack of transparency in the county's public agencies, he said.

"The fact that they're concealing it is significant," Temple said. "They are a public agency and they hide everything they can."

As reported in the Mail Tribune on April 15, county counsel Ryan Kirchoff cited confidentiality and refused comment on the terms of the settlement awarded to Everett Comfort, including its amount or specific allegations against the deputies who were not dismissed.

Comfort was allegedly beaten by deputies Korby Messer and Gary Clark after being arrested in 2007, according to court documents. Sgt. Arlyn Granger, in charge of the jail at the time, was also named as a defendant in the case.

The documents say Comfort, then 47, was arrested for public intoxication, a violation of his parole on a previous conviction of driving under the influence of intoxicants. While he was in a holding cell, Messer and Clark allegedly beat Comfort. The beating resulted in three broken ribs, damage to several transverse processes — components of the backbone — and other surface injuries such as bruising. Comfort was hospitalized at Rogue Valley Medical Center for four days following the incident.

Sheriff's office officials did not return phone calls to the Mail Tribune for comment at the time of the article.

Other founding board members of the new Southern Oregon Chapter include Mike Baughman, Shaktari Belew, Ann Macrory, Bill Mansfield, Steve Ryan, Derek Volkart, Shiana Walker, and Gary Wood. New board members Bill Beecher, Jaelle Draigomir, and Tom Dimitre, Temple said.

Temple said the change allows the group to join forces with the Eugene-based, nonprofit Civil Liberties Defense Center. That center was founded in 2003 by public interest attorney Lauren Regan and others to assist citizens confronting civil liberties issues.

The CLDC relies on the support of its 300 members and a cadre of volunteer lawyers. In its short history, the CLDC's track record of legal victories and landmark cases establish it as a leader in the protection of civil liberties, Temple said.

"Teaming up with Lauren Regan and the Civil Liberties Defense Center offers Southern Oregon a new resource to advance civil liberties," said Temple. "They have an outstanding track record of successes over the past eight years, both locally and nationally, and have attracted a talented team of volunteers around the region."

Regan did not return phone calls to the Mail Tribune on Friday. In a press release, she stated, "We welcome the creation of the Southern Oregon Chapter and look forward to working with this dedicated team of civil rights defenders."

Ongoing campaigns in the Rogue Valley can now benefit from the added expertise and attention from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.

The Civil Liberties Defense Center has championed many issues since its 2003 inception, including a successful federal challenge that invalidated the unconstitutional Interference with Agricultural Operations Act, used by law enforcement to strip community forest activists of their freedoms of speech and association. In the process, the organization successfully defended more than 60 forest activists prosecuted under this statute for demonstrating against the Biscuit Timber Sale in Southern Oregon, the release said.

The CLDC also represented a Portland mosque in a successful block of the FBI's first-ever attempt to subpoena religious records. And it challenged "exclusion zones" and "sit-lie ordinances" in Eugene and many other cities around the country to support homeless and mentally ill people who are being harassed and criminalized for living on the streets, it said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.