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FIRE’s Loss Is Jersey’s Gain: Vote Joe Cohn

There are few worse jobs in Washington than representative. You’re one of 435, so it’s not as if any individual congressman carries much clout. You have a two-year term, so the day after you win election you’re back to begging for money to pay for the next campaign. Why would anyone want such a job?

Joe Cohn told me it was because he’s dedicated his career, indeed his life, to trying to make this a better country, and he’s willing to take the hit for the rest of us. I tried to talk Joe out of it, but he made up his mind. Joe Cohn is running for Congress in the Third Congressional District of New Jersey.

Joe had a damn fine job working as the Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, FIRE, which largely became what the ACLU used to be back when Joe worked there. He could eat Philly cheesesteaks (with whiz) any time he wanted. Instead, he put country above lunch.

During his 20 year legal career, Joe has worked to relentlessly advance the rights of all people. As a lawyer at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, he fought to keep roofs over the heads of people with HIV and AIDS. In private practice he fought for victims of employment discrimination and for families with loved ones killed by shocking negligence in nursing homes. As a volunteer lawyer, he represented asylum seekers looking to America for a life free from political violence. Serving as the legal director at two ACLU affiliates, he defended the rights of street performers, environmentalists, Occupy Salt Lake City activists, LGBTQ students, and prisoners who were gassed in their cells.

For the last dozen years, through his work at FIRE, Joe has defended the free speech rights of
people on every part of the political spectrum. He led successful campaigns against a North Dakota bill that would ban colleges from hosting pro-choice speakers and another bill that would have criminalized telling South Carolinian women where they could obtain lawful abortions out-of-state.

One would be hard pressed to find someone as knowledge about, and as principled toward, civil rights than Joe. In a Congress where few seem to know much about the Constitution, and fewer still seem to consider it a constraint on the government’s enactment of laws and use of power, it would be awfully nice to know that someone like Joe is there to remind lawmakers that the people have rights to be protected.

The most valuable thing Joe would bring to Congress is that he puts principle above partisanship.

Depolarization. The biggest threat America faces today is our own polarization. We too often
view the world in “us vs. them” terms and treat our political adversaries as enemies. Through
his work defending civil liberties on college campuses and in legislatures across the country, Joe has seen this attitude exhibited by our college students and our political leaders. Joe’s top
priority in Washington will be to get out of this vicious cycle because he believes that progress
on everything else hinges on our ability work across our differences.

The credibility one establishes in a career spanning the ACLU and FIRE cannot be understated. There is no organization today that reflects a non-partisan dedication to the principled defense of civil rights, in general, and free speech, in particular, than FIRE. And in the dozen years Joe spent at FIRE, he earned our respect and credibility.

Combating Censorship. Free speech is the lifeblood of a democracy. It either applies to
everyone, or it works for no one. Without the robust free speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, America would never have enjoyed the crucial advancements of the civil
rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, or the LGBTQ movement. That’s why Joe spent the last dozen years of his career defending the rights of all people to be free from censorship. First, at the American Civil Liberties Union and then, at the Foundation for
Individual Rights and Expression, Joe has fought against those who would censor street
performers in Las Vegas, silence the Occupy Salt Lake City movement, muzzle college students
and faculty across the political spectrum, criminalize drag shows, and ban books. As your
Congressman, Joe will continue to defend free speech for all.

At the same time, Joe isn’t a one-trick pony, taking principled but pragmatic positions on an array of issues that demand smart and sound attention.

Decriminalization. “More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. – the
overwhelming majority for possession only.” Joe will push to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use.

Police Reform. While many police serve honorably, and all are entitled to meaningful due
process when they are accused of wrongdoing, the lack of accountability has led to deep
distrust of law enforcement. Joe will support grants to states that require police departments to improve training for officers and have fair, independent systems for investigating and
prosecuting police misconduct.

Supporting Public Defenders. Under our Constitution those accused of crimes are entitled to court appointed attorneys to defend them if they cannot afford attorneys on their own.
Unfortunately, low pay and unreasonable caseloads have created a shortage of quality counsel in communities across the country. In Congress, Joe will support legislation to appropriately fund public defense, improve pay, and set workload limits.

Sure, the devil is in the details, and there are a great many details that require thought and debate, but that’s where having someone open to ideas and dispute regardless of where they come from matters. Having a representative who has the legal experience and expertise to appreciate why shallow Utopian schemes won’t fix intransigent society problems matters.

Rarely have I written here to endorse a candidate for office, as I haven’t found many worthy of support. Joe is worthy. If you’re in Jersey 3, vote for Joe Cohn. If not, toss him a donation. Consider it an investment in the future.

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