A roadmap for expanding liberty and democracy

A civil rights-based approach can help build a stronger Commonwealth

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, fundamental freedoms are under attack: from near-total abortion bans to the criminalization of trans people to endemic voter suppression. We’re proud that Massachusetts leaders have charted a different course, passing best-in-the-nation abortion protections, safeguards for gender-affirming care providers, and major voting reforms. While other states are focused on closing hearts and minds, our Commonwealth is broadening horizons, creating new possibilities and new opportunities for people in Massachusetts to enjoy the fruits of living in a democracy.

Of course, many challenges remain—as Gov. Healey, Senate President Spilka, and House Speaker Mariano all correctly identified in their inaugural speeches. Bay Staters cannot enjoy the benefits of so much progress if, as Gov. Healey pointed out, they are driven by economic necessity to leave the state. But by making firm commitments to address wealth inequality, ballooning costs for education and childcare, substandard public transportation and unaffordable housing, these elected leaders have started the year off on a very promising note. We have good reason to hope that both the Legislature and the governor will build on recent progress, making Massachusetts a safer, more just, and more welcoming place for all.

As civil rights and civil liberties advocates, we also know that making people feel welcome—making them feel truly at home in Massachusetts—is about more than just the cost of essential services. We need a holistic, civil rights and civil liberties-based approach to build a thriving state that works for all its people.

Even lifelong residents can’t feel completely at home in the Bay State until we can live our full lives and be our full selves—seek medical care, travel to work, go about our daily lives without fear of surveillance, false arrest, or needless criminalization. Nor can we feel at home when we face unjust and unnecessary economic roadblocks to success.

If we want people to feel at home in Massachusetts, one of the most important things we can do is increase access to local democratic institutions. After all, it’s hard to develop a sense of belonging if you feel shut out of deliberations that impact you and your community. Hybrid access to public meetings has proven, over the course of the last three years, to be an extremely effective tool for fostering constituent participation (which the Legislature recently affirmed and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll herself highlighted in 2021).

This is true especially for people with disabilities, family care obligations, or other obstacles that prevent them from attending meetings in person. By ensuring equitable hybrid access to open meetings, we affirm that our democracy works best when everyone can participate.

If we want to increase opportunities in Massachusetts, we need to remove needless economic roadblocks and end the criminalization of poverty. Leaders on Beacon Hill have all signaled their intention to address chronic problems with public transportation, especially at the MBTA.

We should also remember those Bay Staters who rely on driving for everyday activities but face the prospect of having their license taken away for unjust reasons—not because of any road safety concerns, but solely because they cannot afford to pay government fines and fees. This practice drives people into cycles of debt and poverty. It is not only unjust, but also counterproductive, since driving is often essential for earning a steady income. We need to re-think driving restrictions, prioritizing road safety instead of punishing poverty.

To create a more just, more welcoming, and more prosperous Massachusetts, we must stop falling back on punishment and criminalization to address complex problems like debt, poverty, and substance use disorder. In her time as attorney general, Gov. Healey fought fiercely for justice in the opioid epidemic. Crucially, she has also expressed support for the idea of overdose prevention centers, which are proven to save lives, increase access to harm reduction methods, and link people to treatment. We are hopeful that Gov. Healey and lawmakers on Beacon Hill will champion a bill to establish a pilot program, allowing municipalities to test out this much-needed public health intervention.

For people to feel safe and free throughout the Commonwealth, we must put guardrails on law enforcement deployment of facial recognition technology, to prevent those tools from being misused. We need checks and balances to avert harms like omni-present surveillance—and even wrongful arrest as a result of misidentification by flawed software. Last session, a bipartisan commission on facial recognition issued a set of balanced recommendations to address these concerns, which the House then enacted. We’re hopeful that lawmakers will take care of that unfinished business this year.

This historic cohort of elected leaders has given Bay Staters who care about civil rights and liberties much to be hopeful about. We are eager to see lawmakers and the governor expand on their vision for an open-minded, forward-looking, and compassionate Commonwealth by embracing these necessary protections for democracy and liberty.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.