The nondescript office tucked away in an unremarkable complex in a pedestrian part of Albemarle County, decorated with gothic horror monsters, Beatles memorabilia and watercolor paintings seems an unlikely location for a civil rights organization with national influence.
“I love horror movies and The Beatles and the watercolors are mine. I paint to relax,” explains John Whitehead, the moving force behind the Rutherford Institute as a cardboard cutout of John, Paul, George and Ringo peers from one side of a cardboard James Dean while a knife-wielding slasher action figure stands on the desk next to him. “It’s kind of different than the average law office, I guess.”
The Rutherford Institute, which turns 30 years old today, isn’t an average law office. It’s a clearing house for attorneys across the country interested in working on behalf of individuals and fighting for constitutional rights.
The organization has defended a wide variety of people, from an Albemarle youth expelled from school for wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt to Paula Jones, who accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.
The institute has written briefs in support of a variety of plaintiffs across the country arguing a variety of issues. It has supported the legal concept that corporations can be held responsible for crimes against humanity, that prisoners should have access to books, religious or otherwise, and that speech, even reprehensible speech, should not be cause for dismissal if made outside of work.
“There was a woman involved in the Occupy movement in California who was a teacher and who was quoted as saying Zionist Jews were causing the problem and needed to be thrown out,” Whitehead said. “She got fired and we represented her.”
Its often publicized efforts on behalf of religious freedom in schools, government and even prison, and on behalf of Jones, as well as the funeral protests of the Westboro Baptist Church’s handful of congregants, has earned the institute a reputation as a more conservative American Civil Liberties Union.
Whitehead doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re interested in the rights of individuals,” he said. “I appreciate what the ACLU has done and we have agreed on many, many cases. I disagree in some respects because I think they’ve given up the fight on a couple of issues, including the idea of expectation of privacy in a public place.”
“Perhaps because of its involvement in the high profile Paula Jones case, The Rutherford Institute is often described as a politically ‘conservative’ civil rights organization,” said Josh Wheeler, head of the Albemarle County-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
“If you look at the causes it has taken on as a whole, however, it is abundantly clear that Rutherford takes on the political right as often as the political left,” Wheeler said. “If you want a more accurate predictor of the side Rutherford will take in any cause, ignore politics and find the underdog. It’s a pretty safe bet that’s whose side Rutherford will take.”
Kay Allison was once such underdog. The proprietor of Charlottesville’s Quest Bookshop, Allison is also a moving force behind Books Behind Bars, a program providing Virginia inmates with dictionaries and other books to keep in their cells.
In 2009, the state Department of Corrections prohibited the books after a paper clip and a CD were left in one that was sent to a prisoner.
“We were unable to send books at all,” Allison recalled. “I gathered up a bunch of papers and took them to their office and [Rutherford] wrote a letter and the department lifted the ban. They looked at what we were doing and what the inmate’s rights were and they stood up for them.”
“He has been a most collaborative cross-town colleague, with whom we at the center have shared many cases and good causes over the years, and have co-authored a number of briefs,” Robert M. O’Neil, the first director of the Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said. “I have particularly admired [Whitehead’s] bold and candid assertion of basic free speech and free press interests in myriad contexts, not all of which could be termed popular.”
The institute runs on a shoestring budget. According to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the institute earned $1.43 million in fiscal year 2011 and had $1.59 million in expenses. Rather than keeping an office full of lawyers on staff, Whitehead has recruited across the country attorneys who work for free.
“Every couple of months we send a list of what we’re looking at and what we’re doing and who’s contacted us and, if an attorney in the area is interested in taking it on, we’ll contact them,” Whitehead said. “A lot of attorneys have regular practices but they have great interest in constitutional issues and it gives them a chance to get involved in something they love or have an interest in. Most do it pro bono.”
Before the Rutherford Institute began, there was just John Whitehead, an admitted handful of trouble as a child who grew up to be a California lawyer with a penchant for lost causes.
“I was getting people bringing me cases because the ACLU wouldn’t take it,” Whitehead recalled. “I floated proposals to everybody but the response was usually ‘You’re a lone lawyer with no money.’ It was frustrating.”
In 1979, Whitehead represented Peter and Ruth Nobel, a Michigan couple who ran afoul of state authorities for homeschooling their children, not an accepted practice at the time. He won. After winning a few more similar cases, he started the institute named after Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford, a theologian and author whose 1644 book, “Lex, Rex” defends the rule of law and limited government.
“We did our first mailing for fundraising in 1982 and hit up folks on the Christmas card list,” Whitehead recalled. “I started handling some cases, did some pro bono, wrote a couple of books and we worked out of our home. I had a little room I sat in and answered the phone but we had no furniture whatsoever.”
When Whitehead moved the institute to Charlottesville, it took off.
“People supported the idea of an organization that would take on anything,” he said. “When we supported Paula Jones we took a hit. People said I didn’t like Bill Clinton, but I had nothing against him. It was just quite clear that she had a case.”
Whitehead said the next 30 years could be difficult. His organization is currently leading the fight against surveillance technology from portable scanners that see through clothing and walls, like those used in airport, to the future use of surveillance drones.
“I think technology is getting so far ahead of the Fourth Amendment that there will soon be no right to privacy. We’re working on proposed legislation to protect the amendment, but technology is advancing so rapidly that we’re way behind it,” Whitehead said.
“I do this because I want to be an advocate for freedom and you have to advocate for freedom of people who, if you were to have dinner with them, would give you serious indigestion,” Whitehead said. “There are a lot of people I don’t agree with, but they have the right to express themselves. If you don’t support their rights, you don’t support yours.”