By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The ACLU at a crossroads

Social justice or free speech? The New York Times offers an in-depth look at the struggles inside the ACLU. My friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate is among those interviewed.

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  1. Steve Ross

    The NYT, as expected, ignored the elephant in the room: ACLU under Nadine Strossen played a key role in three Supreme Court cases culminating in Citizens United (where its friend of court brief gave court conservatives the fig leaf it needed) that utterly destroyed more than 100 years of restrictions on campaign contributions by the rich and powerful.

    Our current political debacle has been nurtured by the ACLU idea that corporations are “people” with almost unlimited First Amendment rights (an idea that took root in a scandal-tinged decision 100 years after the Bill of Rights was written), and that money is speech. Amid the wreckage of democracy they created, ACLU has pulled back… three nutty decisions too late.

    Personally, I have not donated to ACLU since Citizens United.

  2. JT Shore

    Closer to home, the ACLU of Massachusetts argued that the First Amendment didn’t apply near the doors to abortion facilities. Every single justice of the Supreme Court said it did in McCullen v. Coakley. I knew the ACLU had lost their way then.

    • Steve Ross

      Agreed. But there had been well documented cases of anti-abortion folks harassing and aemi-blocking clinic clients of all kinds.

      The mysogenists were chastened enough to at least temporarily clean up their act.

      • JT Shore

        I understand the rationale behind the law, but the solution is to deal with the harassment, not exclude the First Amendment on a public sidewalk. The ACLU should have known better.

  3. MagellanNH

    It seems to me that the struggle playing out inside the ACLU is the same one playing out in the news media. Is their highest order objective tied to their founding principles (Free speech for ACLU, truth-seeking for journalism) or is their highest order objective “to do the most good in society” based on how they assess each particular situation?

    With both the ACLU and journalism, “try to do the most good in society on a case by case basis, first principles be damned” appears to have won the argument.

    The problem of course, is that because both institutions are made up of fallible human beings, neither is very good at reliably choosing the path that will do the most societal good.

  4. Steve Ross

    With freedom comes responsibility. Nick Kristoff, wit the authority granted by NYT, repeatedly misquoted international law on Bill Maher’s show, describing dumb, immoral, horrible things the Israelis are doing to Palestinians as “illegal” as well. No, they are inexcusable, but not in general illegal.

  5. Steve Ross

    JT Shore, as I said, I agreed with the decision. But it was not that clearcut. The state moved the freedom-loving assholes (and that is exactly what they are… people who insist their misinterpretation of the Bible deserves precedence… something also mentioned in 1st Amendment) back from the door. They could still yell all they wanted. But they also wanted to intimidate.

    Also, the state COULD put a cop there… an extra $200,000 a year, or a cop who could have prevented a crime elsewhere.

    BTW, I have zero sympathy for the assholes. One of them was Bergen County NJ district attorney in 1972, running for governor on a newly invented (for him) antiabortion platform. His aim was to get press attention for his campaign. His name was Woodcock (!) and he interfered with my wife’s desire to terminate an ectopic pregnancy. She almost died from the resulting internal hemorage. Roe v Wade came soon after. But the assholes — and again I don’t regret calling them that — are still fighting it 50 years later. They have that right. But there is collateral damage!

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