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Ritchie Eppink

Legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho on life and liberty in the Gem State



Ritchie Eppink likes to speak in analogies. The newly appointed legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho likens constitutional rights to an automobile--they both must be maintained.

Eppink said mowing the grass under the Boise Occupy camp is akin to mowing the grass of a baseball field halfway through the fifth inning. He sometimes looks at the Bill of Rights "as a cookbook."

"Everybody should go through the Bill of Rights and find a right that's important to them and exercise it. It would be great if we all did that," he said.

Eppink, 35, grew up on subdivided land once owned by Thomas Jefferson, but eventually headed West and "literally wandered," picking up what he called his "hitchhiking credentials" along the way.

"There was a lot that resonated--that wild and free part," said Eppink. "I think I found the perfect place geographically and vocationally."

A love of freedom and commitment to public interest law led the University of Idaho Law School graduate and Fulbright fellow to the position of Justice Architect for Idaho Legal Aid Services, where he helped homeowners challenge deceptive banking practices during the foreclosure crisis. In May Eppink began his full-time post with ACLU of Idaho.

"I love America and its heritage of freedom and opportunity," he said. "And there couldn't be a better place to stand up for liberty and the Constitution than here in Idaho."

Eppink recently presented arguments in U.S. District Court in Boise, defending Occupy Boise's right to free speech and assembly. Eppink said he has a long to-do list that includes defending the Constitution and identifying threats to civil liberties.

What are some of the biggest threats to civil liberties today?

In Idaho, we're seeing state agencies that are getting instructions to cut and cut. And they're cutting so close to the bone that they're cutting out people's rights.

I'm also concerned about a lack of appreciation for civil liberties. I've been disappointed this year with our government in the case of the Occupy protesters. [The government] has used this historic circumstance to dial down the First Amendment as far as they can before they get stopped by the court.

And people don't really know what privacy is anymore. It's not clear where our private lives end. And I think that government is struggling with that, too.

What guidance can citizens look to as they try to protect their privacy, especially in light of rapid technological advancements?

It's always been clear--and the founders knew this--that the people are responsible for keeping all of those liberties: the right to privacy, the right to speak freely, the right to not be interfered with in your day-to-day life by the government.

And can citizens do a better job in defending their civil liberties?

We've got to know about them first. Then you have to be able to spot when there's a problem. Then you have to have the resources to do something about it. That's why the ACLU exists. This is an organization that tries to accumulate the resources to make sure that if worse comes to worse, and our government starts treading on those rights, we can actually do something about it.

The ACLU of Idaho was part of a coalition that worked to defeat this year's ultrasound legislation [which would have required women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion]. What lessons can be learned from that effort?

That is a great example of how people need to know what's happening. If people hadn't known what this effort was all about and if people hadn't been willing to stand up and do something about it, we may have seen a different outcome. It was a combination of education, advocacy and action that defeated the bill.

The ACLU is often seen as controversial. Why do you think this is the case?

We have forgotten that it was revolutionaries that gave us this country. People were willing to die for things as abstract as the right to speak, to assemble and the right to have the opportunity to be heard. It's controversial to stand up for those ideas today because it has a revolutionary influence.

The impact is profound when we think, "I can advocate for what I want," and "I can say what I want." People are not in the streets fighting for these rights like they are in other countries. But we know what happens when they do move into the streets--the state has to mow the lawn.

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