Amol Sinha is the new executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, and the first-generation American has local roots.
Sinha was named executive director Sept. 1. His Indian-born parents came in the early ’70s to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father could earn a master’s and doctorate in statistics.
After Sinha’s father earned his doctorate at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he taught for a while in Louisiana, and finally came to New Jersey to become a statistician for American Cyanamid, and later other companies. Sinha and his two older brothers, who are both doctors, went K-12 through Lawrence Township Public Schools.
Sinha’s experience as an immigrant was formative for him. Looking back on his youth, he says that even though he had no accent, that did not protect him from what immigrants experience consistently, in schools, social settings and among peers—“subtle indications that they are different; little microaggressions or interactions that make somebody feel alienated or as though they don’t belong.” One example was teachers who would point to him, “the only brown-skinned guy in the classroom” … “to be representative of my culture.”
Immigrant families all have to balance multiple identities. “You have to balance your ability to retain your culture at home and your ability to fit in the outside world, and it is difficult to navigate,” Sinha says.
Looking back, he sees his experience as part of an immigrant family as an important preparation for his future, because it provided him “with a degree of empathy and caring about multiple identities across our nation.” He now understands the complexity of every human being, each one an “accumulation of all our experiences.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and journalism at New York University in 2007, Sinha moved to the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. On arrival, he says, “I knew that I was interested in resolving injustice in some way, but frankly I think I was more interested in intellectual property than civil rights.”
But when he took his first intellectual property class and learned that “property rights is rooted in what is called the ‘arts and science’ clause of the Constitution,” he pivoted toward constitutional law, taking several classes on the first amendment alone, as well as a couple on civil rights litigation. “It was probably not the most lucrative path, but it was intellectually and soulfully satisfying for me,” he says.
During law school he interned for the national legal department of the ACLU, doing a combination of first amendment and national security litigation as well as human rights work. Inspired by ACLU’s work on cutting edge issues, in particularly litigation coming out of Guantanamo, he says, “It was remarkable as a law student to be exposed to such novel and really important work.”
‘What we want to make sure of is that every single person in New Jersey and the rest of the country feels that they are welcome.’
His first professional position was running the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which covers the eastern two-thirds of Long Island. During his five years, he dealt with “the continuing and strong anti-immigrant sentiment,” focusing on immigrant rights, criminal justice and education.
“The thing I am most proud of from Suffolk County was the bridge-building role I took on—to be able to build relationships with community members, organizations, people in the government, and elected officials and bring them altogether for a variety of reasons.” For example, he had the phone numbers of the top brass in the police department, who would ask the NYCLU for advice about immigrant rights.
During his tenure, the NYCLU also represented many inmates across Suffolk County who had been suffering through terrible sanitary conditions in Suffolk County jails.
Next, Sinha moved to the Innocence Project, where he tried to get laws passed at the state level across country to reduce wrongful convictions during a two-year stint as a policy advocate. He focused on “ways to make evidence more reliable so that, when presented before a court, it is accurate and reduces chances that something flawed gets into the mix.”
The No. 1 cause of wrongful conviction in the United States, he says, is eyewitness misidentification, and he helped develop research-based procedures to ensure that eyewitness identifications are “as objective and free from contamination as possible.” Working with lawmakers and stakeholders, he also advocated for state policies to reflect and mandate these procedures in police departments statewide.
Under his leadership at ACLU-NJ he expects to continue its work on criminal justice, immigrant rights, and LGBT rights, and voting rights.
In light of “an increase in vitriol toward immigrants and people of color in this country,” ACLU-NJ has recently hired a staff attorney to focus solely on immigration. “What we want to make sure of is that every single person in New Jersey and the rest of the country feels they are welcome and as much a part of the fabric of American society as anyone else,” Sinha says.
They will be using both litigation and advocacy for policy change to fight discrimination and unfair treatment toward immigrants, as well as public education, to change minds and hearts and make New Jersey “as welcoming a state as it can be.”
“We will make sure we are creating a culture in which people really understand the reasons why we need to be welcoming,” Sinha says, noting that they will be addressing the DACA, or “Dreamers,” program in particular, which affects tens of thousands of New Jersey residents.
“With New Jersey having such an immigrant-heavy population, it is upon us and organizations like us to make sure those rights are preserved,” Sinha says.
Regarding the criminal justice system, Sinha says “it disproportionally affects minorities and has negative consequences for a lot of individuals and communities across the state.” ACLU-NJ is working toward criminal justice reform and ensuring that lawmakers and others with decision-making power understand that criminal justice laws and practices need to be reformed. Noting that the criminal justice system historically has negatively affected communities of color, he adds, “New Jersey, since it enacted bail reform recently, is in many ways a leader in that history.
On voting rights, he says, ACLU-NJ wants to “make it easier to vote for everybody and make sure people are not disenfranchised for any reason. It is important to us that we have a thriving and robust democracy,” he says.
Asked specifically about the events in Charlottesville from the perspective of free speech and ACLU’s role, Sinha says, “I think first and foremost we at ACLU-NJ and ACLU national condemn and do not agree with the content of the speech of white supremacists, KKK or neo-Nazis, and we condemn violence in all forms.”
He says that the ACLU did advocate for the principle of free speech in this instance. “The idea is that if we start allowing the government to pick and choose which forms of speech, and which content of speech, and which viewpoints are allowed in public areas, then all of us are at risk of being censored. I don’t think anybody wants the government, especially not this government, to be in charge of the ideas it allows in the public square,” he says.
Asked about how the potential for violence intersects with the issue of free speech, Sinha says, “Oftentimes the content of the speech is not an indicator of whether or not there is going to be violence,” noting that, throughout history, intense, adversarial speech has gone off without a hitch while seemingly peaceful and noncontroversial has resulted in violence.
“I don’t think fire in crowded theater is right analogy,” he says. “This is seemingly a conflict between the work of racial justice that the ACLU holds as paramount and the work of free speech that the ACLU also holds as paramount.”
Although in Charlottesville, those two principles came to a head, he says, “I think the ACLU and me personally aim to live in a society where we can protect principles of free speech and racial justice. They are not irreconcilable or mutually exclusive; they in fact need to work in harmony.”
He asserts that the protection of life is the responsibility of the police and the authorities. When conflicts arise, and not just in the context of protests, they need to be “using … tactics and tools in a smart way to be sure to deescalate conflict.” In Charlottesville, he continues, “there wasn’t enough of a police response when the possibility of violence started emerging; there were clear moments when force was being used but there was not action from law enforcement.”
In the end, he hopes this was “a learning moment for law enforcement across the country. It is a complicated question, but I do think that we as a society have historically had these moments arise and we have figured it out and are continuing to learn from it, and the ACLU gets stronger with each debate.”