October 5, 2015

Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN communications director, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has secured a court order allowing a Knoxville nonprofit organization providing pro bono legal services to youth charged with truancy to maintain a presence at the Knox County juvenile court building. Knox County had previously denied the group the ability to speak with potential clients or to distribute materials at the courthouse. The organization will be present at the courthouse beginning Monday, October 5.

“We are pleased that Knox County is now allowing the Lawyers Education Advocacy Project access to young people who need their help,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “Not only does the court order protect the group’s free speech rights, it ensures that at-risk youth can have an attorney during court appearances. Having a lawyer can make the court process less traumatizing for children and help them access the resources they need to overcome the challenges leading to truancy in the first place.”

Truancy cases are prosecuted by the Knox County District Attorney General's office and a young person found guilty can be placed on strict probation, fined, required to do community service, lose his or her driver’s license and even be placed in state custody. Under current Tennessee law such students are not entitled to an appointed attorney.

The Lawyers Education Advocacy Project (LEAP) is a Knoxville nonprofit whose mission is to provide pro bono legal advice and representation to children charged with truancy in Knox County and pro bono legal advice to their parents. In the fall of 2014, LEAP proposed making attorneys available in the lobby of the juvenile court building on days when the court heard truancy cases in order to offer free legal representation to students accused of truancy. LEAP also requested that its “know-your-rights” brochures be made available in the lobby, along with brochures offering other services to youth. Knox County initially denied LEAP’s request.

On January 27, 2015, the ACLU of Tennessee sent a letter to the Knox County legal department explaining that prohibiting the LEAP lawyers while allowing other nonprofits access to the courthouse amounted to content-based discrimination, violating the group’s constitutional right to free speech. After more than six months of negotiations, ACLU-TN secured a court order articulating LEAP's right to offer pro bono legal services to young people charged with truancy and their families, to provide know-your-truancy-rights information, and to use courthouse space to meet with potential clients.

“This victory is a step in the right direction toward ensuring access to justice for Tennessee’s schoolchildren,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “Nationally there is a disturbing trend toward children—particularly our most vulnerable children—being funneled out of the public school system and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Securing LEAP’s presence in the Knox County courthouse brings us one step closer to reversing Tennessee’s school-to-prison pipeline.”

This effort is part of ACLU-TN's Campaign for Smart Justice, which advocates for a criminal justice system that fosters public safety and fiscal responsibility by reducing mass incarceration and ensuring police accountability.

Attorneys from the Lawyers Education Advocacy Project (LEAP) will be present at the Carey E. Garrett Juvenile Court Building on truancy hearing days beginning October 5. Young people charged with truancy and their families can request free legal assistance from LEAP at the courthouse or contact LEAP at (865) 974-1481.

ACLU-TN’s initial letter to Knox County can be found here.

The court order can be found here.