I’ve often been ambivalent about the ACLU — the American Civil Liberties Union.
Since it’s founding in New York City in 1920 by Roger Baldwin and others, the ACLU’s mission was to protect Americans’ rights and freedoms as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.
I am for all of them, starting with the most broad and encompassing — the First.
This is the one that specifically protects my profession, journalism (or “the press,” as the language says), plus freedom of speech for all, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, and to redress grievances by petitioning the government.
Two quick asides: After one of the many
disturbances riots we suffered in 2020, CNN’s Chris Cuomo said something particularly dumb, even by TV standards. “Who said it has to be peaceful?” he clucked.
The U.S. Constitution, that’s who.
Secondly, anyone entering the Capitol or breaking through police lines on January 6 is not protected by the First Amendment, but anyone attending the preceding rally is.
Why? Key word — “peaceably.”
For 100 years the ACLU protected those rights.
I had a major rupture with the ACLU when in 1978 it went to court to secure the rights of American Nazis to march in Skokie, IL., a Chicago suburb selected because it was the home of many Jews, including Holocaust survivors. The march was designed to be provocative.
Like many others, I broke with the ACLU.
I was reacting emotionally, as a Jew and as an American, with loathing toward Nazis and what they stood for.
Intellectually, I knew the ACLU was right, but it stung just the same.
Thirty-one years later, quarterback Michael Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles after serving time for his role in a dog-fighting ring.
He had “paid his debt to society,” and I knew some team would pick him up. I just didn’t think it would be my team. I opposed it. I vowed to wear no Eagles gear as long as he was with the team. (Eventually, through his anti-dog fighting work with the Humane Society of the U.S., I became convinced that Vick truly had reformed himself.)
I returned to the Eagles, as I had returned to the ACLU after Skokie.
Over the years I would call the ACLU for comment on a “right” I might be writing about, as well as the National Constitution Center, and scholars and experts.
I agreed with the ACLU on most issues.
As we entered COVID, I was working on a column — I don’t recall the issue — and I emailed the ACLU for comment, then followed up with a phone call, which was not returned.
By this time I was “retired,” but recalled before I left the Philadelphia Daily News I had called for information and had not been called back. A one-off, I thought.
This second time made me doubt that.
Were they ducking me deliberately?
I didn’t know that the ACLU was going through a metamorphosis, a transition from a balls-to-the-walls protector of all rights, to a woke group of Social Justice Warriors choosing among rights, like a diner at a Golden Corral buffet.
What brought all this to mind was an appeal for funds. In the past, I put my money where my First Amendment mouth was, and wrote a check.
It has shifted from its original stance — that free speech must be protected at all costs — to one that places its new-found wokeness above ACLU’s traditional values. It’s not me saying that, it is the progressive The New York Times in a long report.
The lawyer who defended the Skokie Nazis, David Goldberger, feels the ACLU has deserted him. “I got the sense it was more important for the ACLU staff to identify with client’s and progressive causes than to stand on principle,” he said.
That it’s got its full woke on is reflected in the remarks of former director Ira Glasser, who said, “There are a lot of organizations fighting for racial justice and immigrants rights, but there’s only one ACLU that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”
Some think it already has.
New ACLU guidelines say the group wants to “balance” groups whose “values are contrary to our values” against the potential “offense to marginalized groups.”
This turns a blind eye to the concept that offensive speech is protected by the Constitution. It is a betrayal of its century-long mandate.
The Times reports that the supposedly nonpartisan group engaged in politicking against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court by running a commercial suggesting he was guilty of sexual assault. That was guilt by accusation. It also spent about $800,000 appearing to campaign for Stacey Abrams to become governor of Georgia. It also supported defunding the police.
So now I look at this fund-raising plea from the ACLU, which is plenty flush, thanks to drenching donations during the Donald J. Trump presidency.
I will send no check. The ACLU has lost my support, and this time it is intellectual, not emotional.
It has gone woke and values feelings over rights.