Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, reporters began calling the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. They all had basically the same question: Does fighting terrorism mean kissing the Constitution goodbye?
But Laura W. Murphy, the ACLU's chief lobbyist in Washington, was not inclined to dispense sound bites.
"We absolutely refused to participate in stories that dealt in speculation about how civil liberties would be taken away," she recalled the other day. "I would like to think that throughout this crisis, the ACLU has been reasonable and deliberative."
Such reticence might seem out of character for the ACLU, which, in the name of defending the First Amendment, has embraced causes as diverse as the teaching of evolution and the right of neo-Nazis to march past Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Ill. But the scale of the attacks, and the obvious need for tough new security measures to prevent a recurrence, posed a special kind of challenge for an organization that sometimes has been accused of seeing the world in absolutist terms.
On the one hand, Murphy said, "I think a lot of the climate is really understandable. We've been through a traumatic event. We're all concerned about security."
On the other, she added, "we don't want to see a repeat of our own experience after the Oklahoma City bombing where we had legislation that really took away some of our rights and didn't offer us any more security."
Murphy, 45, has had plenty of experience navigating political minefields. Unlike many of her colleagues, she is not a lawyer, having spent most of her career in the political arena as a congressional staffer, consultant, fundraiser and, before she took her current job in 1993, director of the D.C. tourism office.
From her office in a 19th-century row house two blocks east of the Capitol, the Baltimore native supervises a staff of 30 and a budget that has doubled during her tenure. Some of her efforts have gone into improving the organization's public relations apparatus: "I said that to be effective, we've got to improve our message. We can't have lawyers writing press releases that read like legal briefs."
More substantively, Murphy has helped defeat legislation that would have allowed school prayer, pushed a ban on racial profiling (an effort that is now on hold because of the attacks) and irritated liberal friends by lining up with conservatives against a campaign finance overhaul seen by the ACLU as a threat to free speech.
As in the campaign finance debate, Murphy has sometimes found herself at odds with the ACLU's traditional allies, and she has not been afraid to make common cause with conservatives. She counts herself on cordial terms with Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whom she describes as "probably one of the best constitutional law experts" in Congress, if not always "consistent" on First Amendment issues.
"I'll work with anybody as long as I don't have to surrender our institutional principles as a condition," said Murphy, the first woman and the first black to direct the ACLU's Washington office. "If the condition of working with Bob Barr was that I have to pledge allegiance to a whole range of issues, I wouldn't do it."
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the nation embarked on an anguished conversation about whether to embrace draconian new laws that could erode constitutional freedoms.
Mindful of the public mood, Murphy and her staff tried to avoid speculating about the possibilities until last week, when the administration introduced its anti-terrorism bill.
They have since found their voice, issuing a barrage of news releases criticizing the bill and organizing an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservative libertarians -- including Grover G. Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform -- to oppose it. On Tuesday, Murphy and two colleagues aired their concerns in a private meeting with Robert S. Mueller III, the new FBI chief.
Murphy said the administration bill -- at least in its early versions -- has a number of troubling provisions, including one that would allow the indefinite jailing of noncitizens suspected of links to terrorist groups and another aimed at enhancing the surveillance powers of domestic law enforcement agencies.
"They're removing the checks and balances on federal law enforcement and the executive branch by the federal courts," she said.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has called the proposals "modest" and well within the confines of the Constitution, although he also has expressed a willingness to work with Congress on aspects of the bill that some find objectionable.
Murphy came naturally to politics. Her great-grandfather founded the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the nation's oldest black-owned newspapers; her mother ran for a seat on the Baltimore City Council; and her father, a lawyer, was elected to a state judgeship. One of her uncles, a union organizer, was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s.
"If you sat around the dinner table with my parents and five kids, you'd better be able to hold your own," she said. "You were not allowed to not have an opinion."
In junior high school, Murphy was sent to the principal's office when, as a civil rights protest, she refused to say the pledge of allegiance.
After graduating from Wellesley College, she worked as an aide to then-Reps. Parren J. Mitchell and Shirley A. Chisholm, then served as an ACLU lobbyist from 1979 to 1982. Later she represented corporate and government clients for a public affairs consulting firm in Los Angeles, worked as a senior aide to then-California Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. and eventually wound up as a political fundraiser in Chicago.
In the latter capacity, she got to know Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was elected mayor of Washington in 1990. Kelly brought her to Washington to create and run the city's first office of tourism; two years later, Murphy agreed -- reluctantly, she said -- to take over the ACLU's Washington office.
Murphy said she has no regrets about returning to Capitol Hill. "I have my dream job," she said.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company