Roger Baldwin founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920 after President Wilson, during World War I, practically suspended the right to publicly — and privately, if overheard — dissent from government actions. Years later, I met Baldwin toward the end of his life, and his solemn advice to me was: "Always remember that no civil liberties battle is ever won — permanently." But, by placing freedom of speech at the core of the ACLU's reason for existence, Baldwin believed that no civil liberties battle need be permanently lost. (Just published is a chronicle, pertinent today, of Baldwin's achievements and continuing relevance —Liberties Lost: The Endangered Legacy of the ACLU, by Woody Klein.)
While the staff of the ACLU has never been more essential to protecting the Constitution, the top leadership of the ACLU is working to prevent dissenting national board members from going to the news media with criticisms of ACLU policies.
With Executive Director Anthony Romero's backing, the board has issued a proposal for this week's agenda that I expect would have startled Baldwin. This could tarnish the invaluable work of ACLU staff members who are fighting to "keep America safe and free." (The ACLU's slogan.)
Here is that proposal, as reported last month in The New York Times: "Where an individual director disagrees with a board position on matters of civil liberties policy, the director should refrain from publicly highlighting the fact of such disagreement. ... There is always a material prospect that public airing of the disagreement will affect the ACLU adversely in terms of public support and fundraising."
U.S. newspapers found the irony irresistible. The Roanoke (Va.) Times, for one, noted that the proposal "appears to be a reaction by ... Romero to his failed effort to oust two board members who had criticized ACLU policies."
Actually, one principled dissenter: Michael Meyers, the director and founder of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a longtime ACLU board member, has been forced out from the executive committee and the national board in punishment for going to the news media several times.
Wendy Kaminer, another recidivist dissenter and favorite target of ACLU's leadership, said the proposal "is preposterous — a violation of everything we're supposed to stand for."
The Times reported that in the board session, Romero furiously denounced Kaminer for having told a New York Sun reporter of her disagreement with the leadership's previous support of a bill in Congress that would regulate advertising by counseling centers run by anti-abortion organizations. Kaminer, who supports a woman's right to an abortion, was concerned with the legislation's free-speech problems. She told the Sun she was appalled "that the ACLU is actively supporting this."
After excoriating her for going to the news media, Romero demanded that another board member, Alison Steiner, "step outside the meeting room, where he chastised her for the look on her face when he was criticizing Ms. Kaminer," the Times reported.
In an e-mail to the board, Steiner wrote that Romero told her in the corridor that because "I ... did not appear ready to join him in 'getting rid of (Kaminer),' ... I was no better than she was, and then stormed off angrily," the Times recounted.
Romero, in a tepid letter to the editor that followed in the Times, did not deny that illuminating exchange but noted predictably that the ACLU "exists to defend the right of dissent and the free exchange of ideas." Then why has he not denounced the very concept of instructing board members to refrain from public dissent? And why is most of the board and ACLU President Nadine Strossen so compliant?
Previously, there was a public objection by then-board member Meyers when in a front-page story in 2004, the Times revealed that the ACLU, which has criticized omnivorous government data basing for national security, "is using sophisticated technology to collect a wide variety of information about its members and donors in a fundraising effort."
Said Meyers to the Times: "If I give the ACLU $20, I have not given them permission to investigate my partners, whom I'm married to, what they do, what my real estate holdings are, what my wealth is, and who else I give my money to."
The American Civil Liberties Union is now free of Meyers. Does that make its national membership, and the country, any more safe — or free?
Nat Hentoff is a former member of the ACLU's national board and, before that, the New York board. He is also an authority on free speech issues.
© 2006 USA Today