The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed its deep sorrow over the death of First Amendment Counsel Marvin Johnson, who passed away last night after a long battle with complications from diabetes. Before he joined the Washington Legislative Office in March 2000, he served as the Executive Director of the ACLU of Wyoming and before that as its board chair.
"We are deeply saddened by Marv Johnson's death. He was a much-loved member of the ACLU family, and highly respected for his dedication to the protection of individual freedoms," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "We will especially miss Marv's rapier wit, and his passion for defending the First Amendment."
One of Johnson's final legislative accomplishments was leading a bipartisan group to defeat the grassroots lobby provisions of a lobby reform bill that would have prevented Americans from expressing their views to members of Congress. Johnson was also the author of two reports on the dangers of domestic spying by federal law enforcement. The first report, done in January 2002, included a case study on the grim smear campaign waged by the government against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Johnson was the executive director of the Wyoming chapter during the Matthew Sheppard tragedy and led the Wyoming LGBT and civil liberties communities during that difficult time. Johnson successfully litigated numerous First Amendment cases in Wyoming, and he has a long roster of legislative accomplishments. Among many other things, he worked with the Republican-controlled state House and Senate to defeat neighborhood notification requirements for offenders who had completed their court ordered sentences.
Prior to taking the helm at the Wyoming ACLU office, Johnson worked as an attorney in private practice. He also served in the Air Force as a Judge Advocate General, including two years as the Chief of Military Justice for F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
In an October 2007 blog on the 50th anniversary of a court ruling that deemed Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' not obscene, Johnson lamented the ironic reversal of First Amendment rights. He wrote, "It's no longer accurate to say free speech has rolled back to the fifties - it's worse now. A radio station cannot possibly celebrate the First Amendment by being forced to gag its announcers and point to a website. 'Howl' captured the essence of a society on the brink of explosion, and the 'Howl' obscenity decision marked a forward march toward greater free speech. If the FCC and our lawmakers want to repeat the repression of the 1950s, they should remember that even then the country was inching toward more freedom, not less."
Johnson is survived by his life partner Billie Ruth Edwards, who has also devoted her life to fighting for civil liberties.