ACLU Ohio director retires after 27 years of battles

Twenty-seven years ago, Christine Link said she was feeling pretty cocky three days into her new job as director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Then the national boss called to chew her out.

“‘What the hell is going on in Cincinnati? We just saw this museum director was arrested. It’s on the front page of the New York Times and I don’t see the ACLU in that case. What’s wrong with you people?,’” Link recounted the call.

In 1990, Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Arts Center, was facing obscenity charges for exhibiting photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Link and her two employees filed an amicus brief on the case. Barrie was acquitted in the case, which drew national attention.

Link, 65, is retiring June 30, after 27 years leading the ACLU of Ohio into battle over free speech, gay rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, debtors prisons and other issues.

When she took the job in 1990, the operation had just three employees and was teetering on the verge of receivership. Since then, the ACLU of Ohio grew its staff to 15, bought a headquarters in Cleveland, opened an office in Columbus and boosted membership and supporters to 75,000.

In April 2013, Link sent an ACLU of Ohio report to Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, detailing how court practices resulted in a modern day “debtors prison.” In a matter of months, O’Connor issued instructions to judges across the state to avoid the practice of sending people to jail when they are unable to pay court fines.

The ACLU of Ohio is now working to win reforms on bail practices. Link estimates that 60 percent of inmates in Ohio jails are there because they couldn’t come up with $500 or less in bail money. Failure to make bail on minor charges can lead to job losses, piles of fees and fines, criminal records and other problems for low-income Ohioans, she said.

O’Connor, a Republican who went to Catholic grade school and high school with Link in Strongsville, said of the ACLU: “They do take on unpopular causes, on both sides of the issues. They’ve taken on the issue of fines, fees and bail that have a negative impact on those in our society that can least afford it. But they’ve also represented other issues of free speech, no matter who is the speaker and whoever is trying to curtail their speech.”

During Link’s tenure, the ACLU of Ohio fought for free speech in 2004 for the long-time Summit County GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, whose Bush/Cheney yard sign ran afoul with the city of Hudson’s sign ordinance. The ACLU of Ohio also fought for free speech for neo-Nazis who wanted to march in Cincinnati in 2007.

“A lot of what we do makes our members angry. The running joke is people join the ACLU so that they can quit the ACLU,” Link said.

A similar case taken by the national ACLU in 1978 inspired Link. She was a 16-year-old student when the ACLU took a controversial stand to defend the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb.

“I thought ‘I want to be with those people. That takes such integrity to do that and such courage,’” she said. “That kind of bravery in defense of the First Amendment. I kind of knew then that in some way I’d end up on this road. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ve loved the work.”

Link, who is not a lawyer, will be replaced by J. Bennett Guess, who starts the job July 1.

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