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ACLU Says Membership Has Doubled — Thanks To Bush Presidency

by Matthew D. LaPlante

Surveillance. Rendition. Torture.

By many measures, the Bush administration has been bad for civil liberties.

Yet the past seven years have been particularly good for the American Civil Liberties Union. National membership in the organization, which fights for freedom of speech and religion, equal protection, due process and privacy, has doubled since Bush took office in 2001 - an extraordinary spurt of growth for the 88-year-old institution.

"I think it's very much a reflection of the fact that there was a very aggressive assault on civil liberties," said ACLU national deputy executive director Dorothy Ehrlich. "Over the past seven years, many Americans felt their own cherished values were under attack, and they didn't want to sit by."

The ACLU counted about 250,000 members in the final year of Bill Clinton's presidency. Today, the organization has about 500,000 card-carriers, 2,500 of them in Utah.

Fundraising has increased in kind. According the IRS, the nonprofit had about $44 million in annual revenues in the 2000 fiscal year. In the fiscal year ending in March of 2007, it collected more than $80 million.

That's on top of what independent chapters throughout the country collected from their members. For instance, the organization's Northern California chapter - one of the nation's largest and most active - doubled its revenues, from $4.8 million to $9.1 million, between 2000 to 2006.

But it wasn't only in left-leaning locales like San Francisco, where the Northern California chapter is headquartered, that people flocked to support the ACLU. Five-hundred miles to the right - both geographically and politically - in Utah, ACLU membership nearly doubled, up from from about 1,300 at the start of the Bush administration, according to chapter officials.

Dani Eyer took the helm of the Utah chapter in 2002 and led the organization until late 2006, through a period in which Americans were increasingly becoming aware that the Bush administration's response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 would include some rather un-libertarian measures.

From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay and from wiretapping to waterboarding, Eyers said Americans of many political persuasions were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Bush administration's policies.

"I gave a lot of presentations," Eyer said of meetings with students, civic groups, attorneys and others. "I kept thinking we'd heard the worst of it, and then something new would come out. I had to change every presentation I gave because something new would happen."

The revelations were frightening and saddening, said Carole Gnade, who was the Utah chapter's executive director when Bush took office - and during the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But, "it was really was reinvigorating," she said.

Gnade said many Americans had not thought much about civil liberty issues during the Clinton years, "but the truth of the matter is, there was a downhill slide with Clinton, too."

As such, Ehrlich said, Americans would be making a mistake if they assumed that under a new administration, the work of the ACLU will be easier. She noted that although many think of the organization as aligned with the political left, it is officially nonpartisan.

And no matter which party assumes control of the executive branch come November, she said, "We've still got to fix the damage that has been done."

By the numbers

* 500,000 people are members of the ACLU today, double the membership of 2001. * 2,500 Utahns are ACLU members. * $80 million was collected by the group in the fiscal year ending March 2007, up from $44 million in fiscal year 2000.

© 2008 Salt Lake CityTribune

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