The ACLU today: leftism and lies

In our last couple of postings, we’ve been preoccupied with the transformation of the American Civil Liberties Union from an objective defender of free speech and civil liberties into yet another partisan tool for the left. The most prominent critic of this development has been Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile – and liberal – lawyer.

Wendy Kaminer

But Dershowitz hasn’t been alone. In a June article for the Wall Street Journal, Wendy Kaminer – who, like Dershowitz, is a former ACLU board member – cited a leaked memo about the ACLU’s current guidelines for taking on free-speech cases. Under those guidelines, the organization takes into account “the potential effect” of speech limits “on marginalized communities” and the “structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur.” Kaminer shook her head over all this, arguing that such thinking amounts to “a demotion of free speech in the ACLU’s hierarchy of values.”

Megan McArdle

That wasn’t all. On June 26, the Washington Post website ran a piece by Megan McArdle headlined “The ACLU’s divided heart.” McArdle began by paying tribute to the ACLU’s history: “Born out of the prosecutions of antiwar speech during World War I, the American Civil Liberties Union has spent the succeeding decades litigating and lobbying to protect speech rights for everyone, from communists to Nazis. Without the ACLU, Americans wouldn’t have some of the most robust civil liberties in the world.” McArdle also made a point that cannot be considered anything short of vital: “If the ACLU steps back from speech cases, no other organization is ready to pick up the torch, in part because the ACLU is so synonymous with free speech that it attracts much of the donor interest and legal talent in this area.” McArdle then summed up the problematic new guidelines that Kaminer had written about in the Journal.

Nadine Strossen

One might have expected that the leaking of these guidelines to the public would have caused David Cole, the ACLU’s legal director, to miss his stride. But he didn’t. Absurdly, he insisted that these kinds of considerations had entered into decision-making at the ACLU ever since its founding. Nonsense. Nadine Strossen, a former head of the ACLU who has been especially strident lately in her pretense that it’s the same organization it always has been (see, for example, her recent turn on Dave Rubin’s podcast), also stood her ground. But Ira Glasser, Strossen’s predecessor, called B.S. on her: “To deny that this departure from free speech policy is a departure is intellectually dishonest, an Orwellian smokescreen thrown up to obscure what they are doing.” McArdle agreed: the ACLU’s politically drenched new criteria are “inimical to the very ideals the ACLU was founded to protect.” Yep.

The ACLU: not only leftist, but dishonest about it

As we saw last Thursday, the celebrated lawyer Alan Dershowitz, an old-style liberal and former ACLU board member, has charged that organization with no longer being what it used to be – namely, a politically neutral, thoroughly objective defender of freedom of speech. Instead, he maintains, the ACLU is more fixated on opposing Trump than on standing up for the First Amendment.

Susan Herman

Predictably, ACLU officials dismissed Dershowitz’s claims. “I do not personally have any concern that our staff is acting in a partisan manner,” said ACLU president Susan Herman. “We have opposed partisan gerrymandering, for example, whether by Republicans in Wisconsin or Democrats in Maryland.” David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, defended the ACLU by going on the attack, accusing Dershowitz of focusing “virtually all of his energy on defending the asserted rights of the most powerful man in the U.S. and his personal lawyer.” Neither Herman nor Cole, however, had anything to say about their organization’s curious lack of involvement in one case after another involving the systematic repression of non-leftist speech on American college campuses.

David Cole

Moreover, only weeks after Herman and Cole insisted that the ACLU’s mission remained unchanged, the New Yorker reported, in its issue of June 8, that the organization was, in fact, “getting involved in elections — and reinventing itself for the Trump era.” Having been “fastidiously nonpartisan” for almost a century, the ACLU was now planning “to spend more than 25 million dollars on races and ballot initiatives by Election Day, in November.”

Alan Dershowitz

This announcement could not be seen as anything other than proof that Dershowitz was right – and that Herman and Cole were trying to have their cake and eat it too. As Dershowitz wrote in a June 11 article, today’s ACLU “wears only one shoe, and it is on its left foot….The only dispute is whether it supports the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or its more centrist wing. There is little doubt that most board members today support the progressive wing, though some think that even that wing is not sufficiently left. There is no longer any room in the ACLU for true conservatives who are deeply committed to neutral civil liberties. The litmus test is support for hard-left policies.”

Anthony Romero

We’ve heard from the ACLU’s “president” and from its “national legal director.” It also has a “director.” The man’s name is Anthony Romero, and Dershowitz describes him as a “radical leftist” who “refers to those of us who favor the ACLU traditional mission as ‘the old guard.’” In his June 11 piece, Dershowitz cited another critic of the 2018 version of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, who served as the group’s director from 1978 to 2001 and who now says that the ACLU’s course change “has the capacity to destroy the organization as it has always existed.” That seems to be a mild way of putting it. Dershowitz notes Glasser’s concern that a left-leaning ACLU would ignore violation of civil liberties by fellow leftists – even though, as Dershowitz puts it, “some of the greatest violations of civil liberties throughout history” have come from that quarter, notably FDR’s wartime internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans.

As it happens, Dershowitz and Glasser aren’t alone in pointing out – and lamenting – the ACLU’s left turn. More on Thursday.