The ACLU Gives Us a Lesson in Principles

Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More

“What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?…And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide…the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”—- Sir Thomas More [Played by Paul Scofield, scripted by Robert Bolt (in a speech adapted from More’s writings) in the film of “A Man for All Seasons” (1966)]

My opinion of Rev. Terry Jones is a matter of record; to summarize, I think he is well beneath Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, Tom DeLay, Goldman Sachs, Nancy Pelosi, Eliot Spitzer, AIG, Charlie Rangel , Mark Sanford, Barry Bonds, “Ronbo” and most of the other members in bad standing on the Ethics Alarms Bottom 100. Determined as he is to sully the First Amendment with his disgraceful and hate-soaked use of it, however, he is an American, and he has rights. A Dearborn, Michigan jury, prompted by the city, has taken away those rights by preventing him and another fool from protesting outside a local mosque.

Their actions threaten all Americans as a prior restraint on free speech and the right to demonstrate. To its undying credit, the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization staffed with progressives and liberals from top to bottom, is taking up Jones’s cause.

Earlier this month, the organization rescued the job of Derek Fenton, a New Jersey Transit worker who was fired for burning pages of the Koran to protest the planned “Ground  Zero Mosque.” The New Jersey chapter of the A.C.L.U. got him his job back, seven months of back pay, and $25,000 in damages. Right on. Fenton’s protest was offensive and wrong-headed, and Jones is willing to get people killed in riots overseas to keep his mustache in the news. Nonetheless, we dare not let the government tell any citizen what is a “proper” subject for protest.

Sometimes bad people are connected to vital values, and it is impossible to protect one without helping the other. That’s when we find out exactly how much we care about core principles. The A.C.L.U. has passed its test with colors flying. Sir Thomas would be proud.

18 thoughts on “The ACLU Gives Us a Lesson in Principles

  1. There was a time—oh, those were the days!—when I was a proud member of the ACLU. Then they decided that all manner of entitlements were actually rights, embraced a hard left agenda, and I decided that that the good they were doing was outweighed by the bad. I took my money and membership out of the ACLU. That having been said, you called this one right, and the ACLU done good. Now, if only they weren’t like the little girl of the nursery rhyme who, when she was good, was very, very good, but when she was bad, was horrid.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more. The ACLU won’t fight speech codes on campus, and has taken the wrong side in too many cases to count. Here, they are back to their roots, the ACLU at its best.

      • I’ve been a proud, card-carrying member of ACLU for over 20 years. And will continue to be.

        Is ACLU perfect? No. (But then, neither am I.) Is ACLU always wise in choosing the battles it will engage, and those it will not? Of course not. But it is almost the ONLYorganization standing up for ALL people’s rights. Somebody has to do it. Its philosophy is that either the Bill of Rights applies to everybody or to nobody. If it had unlimited funds, it could take on many worthy causes, many more. But its funds and staff are limited.

        Result: some will complain, “Why is ACLU expending all this energy on THIS agenda instead of on MY agenda?”

        And if its Bill of Rights philosophy sometimes results in its defending the rights of some truly despicable people? So be it.

        • I can’t go that far. There are major 1st Amendment outrages, especially regarding university censorship, that the ACLU has appeared to endorse by its long-term apathy. That isn’t anyone else’s agenda, it’s theirs…the ACLU just chooses to ignore it.

          • I’m enjoying the discussion here, but can we stick to the facts, instead of repeating tired old right-wing talking points?
            The ACLU (I am a member) has opposed campus speech codes for quite some time:

            Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

            That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.


            • That’s all great to read, but the fact is that local chapters often haven’t acted on these university incidents, which is why FIRE and other groups have had to step into the breach. I know any advocacy group has to pick its battles, but until I see, for example, the ACLU intervene when kids are punished by schools for what they post on Facebook, I remain skeptical.

              And if the ACLU were as non-partisan and ideologically balanced as it claims to be, it wouldn’t have so many members who resort to calling legitimate complaints “right-wing talking points.”

              • I never said your complaints weren’t legitimate, but claiming the ACLU never does anything about campus speech codes, is certainly a common right-wing talking point. The cases you’ve mentioned are interesting, but again we don’t know how much of it is due to an ideological shift, or simply choosing their battles… and the ACLU is supported by individual attorneys whom I would expect to be susceptible to their own biases. Is it really that surprising that ACLU lawyers might tend to be more supportive of liberal speech than conservative speech? Free speech, is after all, a liberal value. I would certainly like to see them take on more cases of free speech suppression, and to be as open-handed in their treatment of speech as humanly possible. You have a good point about donor bias affecting their choice of cases in regards to fundraising. Since most ACLU donors tend to be liberal, it makes sense they would try not to piss off their patrons too much. I like the work FIRE is doing too, and support them.

        • For example, it defended Rush Limbaugh…Lt Col Oliver North…many others whose misdeeds make one hold one’s nose.

        • Curmie—see this message, from ACLU critic Wendy Kaminer, about how “perfect: the ACLU is…

          “…I can just as easily cite other important speech cases in which the ACLU was absent — cases like Harper v Poway (2007), involving the rights of a Christian student to wear a t-shirt condemning homosexuality. The ACLU stayed out of this case even when a 9th circuit decision denying student speech rights was appealed to the Supreme Court (which vacated the 9th circuit’s deeply flawed ruling.) Only after its absence from the case was publicized (in my 2007 Wall Street Journal op ed) did the ACLU intervene.

          Or consider U.S. v Williams (2008), in which the Supreme Court upheld provisions of the PROTECT Act that criminalized falsely pandering child porn — provisions the 11th circuit rightly deemed “vague and standardless as to what may not be said.” The PROTECT Act was the successor statute to the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which the Court struck down in Free Speech Coalition v Ashcroft (2002.) The ACLU submitted an amicus brief in that case and hailed the decision as “a forceful defense of First Amendment principles.” That was then. A few years later, with a new regime firmly in place, the ACLU exercised its right to remain silent about the PROTECT Act, while the National Coalition Against Censorship and the First Amendment Project filed an amicus brief. A 7 – 2 majority upheld the Act, which, as Justice Souter observed in dissent, dramatically undermined First Amendment protections the Court had extended to virtual child porn only a few years earlier (partly at the urging of the ACLU.)

          Why would the new ACLU fail to defend this important 2002 victory for freedom of speech and thought? Defending virtual child porn is probably not all that popular with donors; besides, how many people would notice or care about its absence from this case?

          It’s naturally easier to know what an organization is doing (and advertising) than what it is not doing. The ACLU’s shift from civil libertarianism to liberalism, especially regarding issues that pit expanding notions of social equality against traditional free speech rights, is gradual, unacknowledged and not readily apparent, since evidence of it often lies in cases the ACLU does not take and lobbying efforts it does not make.

          It would take at least a brief book to lay out the case for the ACLU’s retreat from the unbiased defense of liberty, unmitigated by financial self-interest (and I’ve written one.) But, for now, remember its go along to get along approach to post 9/11 watch lists: the ACLU volunteered to comply with government blacklists in order to boost fundraising. (It’s a long, complicated story, which I summarized here, and in Worst Instincts.) And note the ACLU’s endorsement of aggressive, recent efforts by the Department of Education to crack down on harassment, broadly defined, without regard for free speech. Lately, when the ACLU isn’t actively supporting efforts like this, it’s tacitly supporting them by failing to stand up publicly for student speech rights when Congress considers potentially repressive legislation, like the Tyler Clementi Act, or by ignoring speech rights even in its own, model anti-bullying policies.

          Finally, consider the ACLU’s gleeful reaction to King & Spalding’s withdrawal from the DOMA case, under pressure. As former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser observes, “The ACLU has historically for over 90 years relied more than any other organization on volunteer law firms to handle unpopular cases. Imagine how it would be howling if Ted Olson’s firm had, under homophobic pressure, withdrawn from the court challenge to the Act.” Sometimes, to apprehend the ACLU’s devolution, you have to listen for the sound of its silence.”

  2. We need something like the ACLU. Note that I said “something like,” only because I often disagree with the way they pick their cases (causes).

    But an NGO watchdog in this society — especially now — is a necessity.

    Kudos to them for — this time — standing up for what is right.

  3. On the rare occasions that the ACLU has not defended extreme left unamericans, it has usually picked the most divisive and non-representative elements of the right so as to keep the pot boiling and misrepresent the Right’s issues in the process. I learned a long time ago to never associate them with principle. Their only “principles” are power, money, ego and forwarding the Leftist Agenda.

      • He doesn’t, really. But he’s a legitimate ordained minister and he’s protesting in front of a Moslem place of worship. This makes him doubly objectionable by leftist standards right there. By defending him, the ACLU can claim that they’re true to their falsely proclaimed values by representing a dreaded Christian Right member. This will fool no insider. But it will serve to deceive casual citizens and forward the image of Pastor Jones as representative of rightwing attitudes. As in most things, it’s all about marketing.

        As far as his protesting in front of a mosque (as though that would accomplish anything!) Jones is certainly more within his rights than those who would deny Christians the right to worship in America. As to it causing riots in the Middle East; again, so what? We cannot base every action on the fear that it will set off riot-prone Moslem mobs. Nor can we restrict the rights of any American to peacefully gather and petition their grievances. If we do this, our enemies will have already won.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.