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Alumni Profile

Busy time for alumnus as head lawyer of ACLU in Massachusetts

Matt Segal '99 is legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Klotz

By Brian Klotz

Matthew Segal ’99 is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. That’s another way of saying that the Brandeis alumnus has been very busy lately.

“We feel like we’re in the fight of our lives,” he says, referring to the swath of new challenges he and his colleagues have had to contend with under the current presidential administration.

Earlier this year, in the wake of President Trump’s executive order to impose a travel ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Segal argued Louhghalam vs. Trump, the Boston lawsuit that led to a temporary halt of the ban.

Segal notes, however, that while the events since the presidential election have created significant battles for the ACLU, the organization is busy with many other issues that predate Nov 8. “Much of the work in social and racial justice occurs at the state level,” he says.

One of Segal’s proudest accomplishments came in April, when Massachusetts overturned a record 21,839 wrongful convictions tainted by former Boston drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan. It was the culmination of advocacy Segal had been working on since he began at the ACLU of Massachusetts in 2012.

Over the past several years, Segal has emerged as a leading voice for perspective on complex cases involving civil liberties. For example, The New York Times quoted him frequently in its coverage of the recent high-profile case of Michelle Carter, a Taunton teenager convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend via text messaging to commit suicide.

Segal’s passion for justice developed as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where his parents, Donald ’69 and Risa ’69, met and married – with the ceremony even taking place at the campus’ own Berlin Chapel.

Segal remembers the impact of taking sociology courses with Professor Gordie Fellman, who also taught his mother. “He helped me to understand how structure in our society influences how people behave,” says Segal, “and how the law is the most important of these structures.”

Segal graduated from Brandeis with a double major in sociology and mathematics – the latter a somewhat unexpected choice for someone in the legal profession, but one he has ultimately found useful. “I use math every day,” says Segal. “Not necessarily equations, but having to think logically about arguments and make predictions.”

After Brandeis, Segal went on to earn his JD from Yale Law School and then worked as a public defender in North Carolina. As he explains, it was frequently an uphill battle. “In civil rights work, more often than not the opponent is someone with more power and resources.”

Segal finds his work to be tremendously rewarding. “It is an enormous privilege to work at the ACLU,” he says. “Our clients are extraordinary people, and I get to work on extremely important issues.”

The passion of Segal’s colleagues invigorates him as well. “Everyone here could work elsewhere for more money,” he says. “They are here because they’re committed.”

Segal acknowledges, however, the frustrations of his job, particularly in the current political climate. While the case to put a halt to the immigration ban was a success, he found the ban’s existence to be disheartening. “No one should ever have to work on such a case.”

Within that event, however, Segal saw hope, noting the wave of protests in opposition to the ban. “It showed the power that people have to fight back.”

Segal, a father of three, shares what he tells his young children to comfort them during times of unrest. He relates a quote from the late children’s television show host Mr. Rogers, who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

Regarding his own work with the ACLU, he adds, “I get frustrated and doubtful at times, but I also know there are helpers who are raising their voices to set things right. We don’t always know if we’re going to win, but we do know that we’re the helpers.”

Date: July 11, 2017