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Sarah Wunsch, outspoken civil liberties advocate, dies at 75


Sarah Wunsch, a civil liberties lawyer who advocated for the protection of citizens on issues of race, gender and free speech and who helped persuade New York’s highest court to rule that men could be prosecuted for raping their wife, died August 17 at her home in Brookline. Mass. She was 75 years old.

The cause was complications from a stroke she suffered three years ago, said his wife, Christine Ernst.

As deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts for nearly three decades, Ms. Wunsch brought innovative challenges to the courts to protect a wide range of public behavior, including begging for small amounts of money, tattooing, wearing certain hairstyles. at school and filming the activities of the police on duty.

She even wrote a ghost letter to the state legislature on behalf of her bull terrier, opposing a bill that would have required owners to muzzle and chain certain dog breeds in public.

When the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, ruled in 1984 that married men could be sued for raping their wives, it was the first time the highest court in a State struck down an explicit legal exemption for marital rape.

Prior to this ruling, in New York, a husband could only be convicted of raping his wife if the couple were legally separated or living apart by court order. With the court’s unanimous decision, New York joined 17 other states that had abolished the marital rape exemption in some or all cases, through legislative action or reversal of a ruling. earlier by a supreme court.

“A marriage license should not be viewed as permission for a husband to forcibly rape his wife with impunity,” wrote Sol Wachtler, an associate judge who would later be named chief appeals court judge. “A married woman has the same right to control her body as a single woman.”

Ms Wunsch, who had filed a brief of support for the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of 26 women’s organizations seeking to abolish the exemption, called the decision an “important step in the ongoing efforts to end violence against women”.

In 1983, as an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, she helped persuade a federal judge to grant an injunction blocking regulations that required federally funded clinics to notify parents when underage girls received contraceptives on prescription.

His advocacy also led to a ruling in Massachusetts that protected those most in need by establishing that peaceful requests for spare change or other types of assistance were protected forms of free speech.

“If we ever come to a society where you can’t ask for help, we’ll be in big trouble,” the Associated Press quoted Ms Wunsch as saying after the judgment.

In another Massachusetts case, she and her civil liberties union colleagues successfully argued that the art of tattooing was protected by the First Amendment and that a state ban on tattooing was unconstitutional.

She also took issue with hairstyle discrimination at a local school, racial profiling at Boston Logan International Airport, and violation of the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Sarah Rose Wunsch was born on November 18, 1947 in Brooklyn to Harvey and Helen (Gellis) Wunsch. His mother was a librarian, his father a mechanical engineer.

Raised in Westport, Connecticut, she graduated from Cornell University in 1969, worked as a librarian and taught social studies to eighth graders. Her early commitment to advocacy, honed at Cornell, eventually drew her to the legal profession. She graduated from Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.

Prior to joining the Civil Liberties Union, she worked as an attorney for the Electrical, Radio and Mechanical Workers Union and the New York Center for Constitutional Rights. She also served as director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Human Rights Commission.

She retired in 2018.

Besides Mrs. Ernst, she is survived by her brothers, David, Carl, James and Gerald Wunsch.

In 1997, as the state legislature considered proposing a bill requiring owners to muzzle and chain certain breeds of dogs in public, Ms. Wunsch filed testimony on behalf of her pet bull terrier, Czonka ( pronounce ZON-ka), denouncing the proposal as “the equivalent of racism in the canine world”.

“I’m a bull terrier and I’m proud of it,” reads the prepared testimonial. “I am also a pacifist; I’m running home when I hear another dog growl, even though I’m not the target of the growl. So, I get really upset when lawmakers start making biased statements about an entire race. Even my friends the pit bulls can be perfectly nice dogs. It’s not race. The problem comes from bad human owners and individual dogs.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in an email, “Czonka’s testimony won. Massachusetts has never imposed a statewide muzzle requirement for bulldog breeds. Some municipalities did, but Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation banning race-specific laws in 2012.”

Living in Brookline, a neighborhood not far from Fenway Park, Ms. Wunsch was a Boston baseball fan. Still, there were times when her loyalty was tested, and she couldn’t help but cheer on the underdog.

“If the Red Sox hit the other team,” Ms. Ernst said, “she would start supporting that team because she felt bad for them.”