We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout our history: When people’s rights are threatened, it’s the lawyers who step up to the plate. They fight hate, they defend our Constitution, and they give a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves. More than ever before, we need lawyers to help ensure that everyone’s rights are protected. Thousands of lawyers across the country are doing this. However, some are true Freedom Fighters and they deserve special recognition. That’s why each month, we will feature a lawyer who is really making a difference.
Today, we are proud to feature our first Legal Freedom Fighter: Michael Lieberman and the lawyers at the ADL.
Michael Lieberman has been the Washington Counsel for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) since 1989. He also serves as Director of the League’s Civil Rights Policy Planning Center. Michael helps lead ADL’s advocacy work in Washington D.C. with Congress, the White House, and federal agencies on a wide range of domestic and international issues. He also serves as Policy and Enforcement chair for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the most important civil rights coalition organization in Washington. Follow Michael at @ADLWashCounsel and follow the ADL on Facebook and Twitter at @ADL_National.
Here, an interview with Michael Lieberman:
What inspired you to become a lawyer in the first place?
I believed—then and now—that lawyers can get things done and that legal training can prepare people to help others, to make a difference, and to make progress towards more justice and more equality. There’s a concept in Judaism—an aspiration, really—called “Tikkun Olam,” which means repairing the world. The world is in great need of repair and my experience is that lawyers have special skills to help with that great task.
What was your most memorable case?
My most memorable case was definitely Wisconsin v. Mitchell 508 U.S. 47 (1993). This is the most important Supreme Court decision involving a constitutional challenge to our nation’s hate crime laws. ADL had pioneered hate crime laws, drafting the first model law in 1981. Today, 45 states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws.
I had a number of connections to the case. I had helped to write the Wisconsin law when I was ADL Midwest Civil Rights Director in Chicago in the mid-1980’s. I also helped write the ADL amicus brief supporting the law and helped get signatories—14 national law enforcement and civil rights groups. Lastly, the extraordinary lawyer who argued the case for the United States was my law school roommate. We won.
From a hate/bias perceptive, where do we stand today compared to the past?
I am a firm believer in the maxim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped make famous: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” There’s no doubt whatsoever that the United States has made tremendous progress towards justice and equality, but there’s so much more work to be done. There was fantastic progress over the past eight years on hate crime response, bullying prevention, religious liberty, LGBT rights, and women’s equality. That progress is threatened now, by an administration with different ideologies and priorities. However, we will be working hard to institutionalize progress and fight against backsliding on hard-won rights and liberties.
What challenges do you face today that you never encountered before?
The ADL is a staunch defender of the First Amendment and free speech, even for the most hateful. It’s one of the things that makes America unique among the nations. Hate on the Internet, cyberhate, and cyberbullying are all relatively new challenges for us. The fact that hate on the Internet can be transmitted almost instantaneously, anonymously, and with incredible reach makes it a unique problem.
In recent years, we have partnered with industry leaders and legal experts to identify and remove online hate speech that violates terms of service of the platforms. In 2014, working closely with industry leaders such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, we created best practices to ensure threats and offensive content violating their community guidelines were taken offline. In 2016, ADL established the ADL Center on Technology & Society, which led an extensive investigation into online harassment of journalists – mostly Jewish journalists – during the heated election campaign. We have also helped lead other progressive initiatives to fight hate and harassment online, such as the Twitter Trust and Safety Council.
You’ve had so many successes with the ADL. Which ones stand out the most for you?
Helping to lead coalition efforts to secure the 2009 enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act really stands out. The bill is named after two hate crime victims murdered in 1998 – Matthew Shepard, killed in Wyoming because he was gay, and James Byrd, Jr., killed in Texas because he was black.
Over the thirteen years that we worked on the bill, we built a coalition of over 200 civil rights, education, religious, and professional organizations—and every major law enforcement organization in the country. I was honored with the Justice Department’s 2015 Meritorious Public Service Award for leading those coalition efforts. That’s just cool.
And, importantly, that work has really proven worthwhile—the Justice Department and the FBI have developed significant new training materials and used their new investigative and prosecutorial authority to vindicate justice in a number of cases in which state and local officials could not, or would not, prosecute the hate crime.
If an attorney wants to get involved in social justice, how can they get started?
When we think about the famous MLK, Jr. quote about justice, it’s important to keep in mind that the arc does not bend by itself. It requires many hands and very substantial muscle to bend the arc towards justice and equality for all. I work in Washington, but there is so much to do at the state and local level – implementing bullying prevention laws that every school district in the country has now, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, mentoring a student, or helping a hate crime victim or an asylum petitioner through the legal process.
So ask yourself: What do you care most about? And then find a way to volunteer with an organization doing that work, provide pro bono legal services, or even switch career paths to take on this work full-time.