The ACLU of Michigan and all those who treasure civil liberties lost a giant last week, when ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney William Street died.
Bill was the face of the ACLU of Michigan in Saginaw, where he lived and breathed the Constitution. He was a passionate and articulate defender of the poor, people of color and the Bill of Rights.
I had the honor of working with him on numerous cases and issues over the past 17 years. Whenever I needed to know what was really happening in Saginaw or mid-Michigan, I would call Bill. Whenever I needed a great lawyer in mid-Michigan to drop what he was doing and run into court, I would call Bill. He was always willing to talk, and he was always willing to help the ACLU of Michigan any way he could.
One of Bill’s important cases for us was the successful challenge to the Michigan minor-in-possession law, which made it a crime for minor pedestrians to disobey a police officer’s command to take a breathalyzer test. A federal judge ruled that the law violated minors’ privacy rights and that the cops needed a search warrant before compelling minors to be searched in that way.
While surely not Bill’s most important case, the one for which Bill will be most remembered was the ACLU’s infamous “cussing canoeist” case. The case involved a young man aptly named Timothy Boomer who fell out of canoe on the Rifle River one summer weekend in 1999 when the canoe hit a rock. According to Boomer’s friends, who thought the canoe-tipping was funny, Boomer used the “f-word” a couple of times to express frustration with his predicament.
An Arenac County deputy sheriff who was patrolling the river heard Mr. Boomer and charged him under an 1897 law that made it a crime to use “improper” language in front of woman and children. We at the ACLU were incredulous that the authorities had invoked a blatantly unconstitutional law, and I asked Bill to represent Boomer for the ACLU. Much to our shock, the trial judge in Standish denied the ACLU motion to dismiss and Bill ended up having to try the case.
CourtTV broadcast the case from gavel to gavel while the New York Times, the BBC and dozens of other national and international news outlets reported on the case. Bill handled the trial and the attendant publicity like a master, arguing that it was inappropriate for the government to serve as the “speech police” in a democracy.
While the jury convicted Mr. Boomer, the ACLU won the appeal when the Court of Appeals ruled that the “improper language” law violated the First Amendment.
Bill will forever be known as the attorney who won the “cussing canoeist” case. But his legacy extends far beyond that. I will always remember Bill as an extremely kind, smart, generous man who fought passionately every day to ensure that this country lived up the values embodied in the Bill of Rights. His death is a huge loss to all who care about justice.
By Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director