In May, Matt Welch noted a storm of criticism from the right toward the ACLU for not defending some kids who were sent home from school for wearing shirts depicting the American flag to a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The problem was that the ACLU had intervened on the kids' behalf. The conservative critics just didn't bother to check. I'm working on a column that'll look a bit more at the right's oft-mistaken "Where's the ACLU?" syndrome, but I thought I'd share a pretty glaring recent example I found while researching it.

Here's Rush Limbaugh, while interviewing John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner about the TSA pat-downs on November 15th:

Oh, yeah, and where's the ACLU on this?  I mean unless there's a Muslim being patted down, they don't seem to care about the Fourth Amendment or anything else.

Plug "TSA" and various incarnations of "where's the ACLU" into Google, and you'll get a long list of similar complaints from blogs, comment threads, and discussion groups. A flury of conservatives on Twitter made the same compaint. Many linked to this November 16 post by William Teach, which appeared on the self-explanatory blog, Stop the ACLU and was cross-posted on the popular conservative site Right Wing News. It's titled, "Finally, The ACLU Is Concerned About TSA Groping….Oh, Wait, They’re Not".

Here's an excerpt:

Leave it to the ACLU to ignore an issue that has Americans, both Left and Right, up in arms. Have you ever noticed that the ACLU tends to ignore the real issues 90% of the time? And the other 10% of the time, they usually do the right thing for the wrong reason(s)...

If you search the ACLU website, there is zip. Nada. Zilch. Nor any complaints from the national ACLU in the news about people getting groped and abused.

So I actually did search the ACLU website. My search kicked back 303 hits. I guess it wouldn't be fair to hold Teach accountable for items posted to the ACLU after he wrote the post above. So here's a partial list of the TSA-related items that appeared on the ACLU's website before November 16, all of which Teach should have found:

  • Here's a backgrounder on the imaging machines the ACLU put together in January 2010, just a month after TSA began talking about implementing them at more airports in response to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed underwear bomb.
  • On March 5 of this year, the same day TSA announced the scanners would be used in 11 more airports, the ACLU issued a press release criticizing the decision.
  • Here's a press release the organization put out in 2007 that both expresses alarm about the privacy implications of the scanners and raises questions about their efficacy.
  • From a June 2008 post on the ACLU's website: "We don't think flyers should be subjected to such intrusive displays of their naked bodies. Intimate details of the human body, like the size of breasts and genitals, as well as mastectomies, colostomy appliances, and catheter tubes will be in plain view of TSA personnel, and anyone else in the security area who'd like to take a gander at any particular passenger."
  • In August of this year, the ACLU posted a 3.6 MB file containing the results of its FOIA request for documents related to the TSA's new enhanced pat-down procedures.
  • Here's an April 2009 blog post warning of what's coming, headlined, "Show Us Your Body, or We'll Feel You Up."
  • Here's an August 2010 post noting the story about U.S. Marshalls storing nude images taken with similar scanners, cautioning us to be skeptical of government assurances that TSA images will be deleted.
  • Here's another August 2010 post from the Massachusetts ACLU (but posted to the national ACLU's blog) about an experience with one of the early adopted scanners at Logan International Airport.
  • Here's a May 17, 2010 post about the scanners and safety concerns titled, "Getting Naked with Strangers May Be More Dangerous Than Suspected".
  • In February of this year, the organization drew attention to the case of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, whose nude image was printed out by airline personnel, despite assurances by the British government that images couldn't be retained. In May, they noted the story about the Miami TSA workers who assaulted a colleague after the colleague saw the man's image in one of the scanner and mocked him for the size of his penis.

These weren't difficult to find. And there are plenty more. In fact, in the same post in which Teach writes, "If you search the ACLU website, there is zip. Nada. Zilch. Nor any complaints from the national ACLU in the news about people getting groped and abused," he actually links to a November 3rd entry published on the ACLU's website about the new scanners and pat-down procedures. Not only that, but that particular entry:

  • Links back to four prior ACLU website items critical of the new TSA procedures.
  • Links to an October 29 article in USA Today in which national ACLU Legislative Counsel Chris Calabrese tells the paper, ""Are we giving people two intolerable actions at airports? They can be virtually strip-searched or endure a really aggressive grope?"
  • Asks anyone who feels they've been abused by TSA to fill out a form. The ACLU is collecting the complaints for possible future litigation.

That form, incidentally, went up the day the new procedures went into effect, and so far the organization has collected more than 1,000 complaints.

By all indications, not only has the ACLU not been silent on this issue, they've been way out in front of just about everyone else. Yet in a testament to blind partisanship's uncanny ability to destroy brain cells, Teach then wrote another blog post, this time on November 25th, in which he held firm to his earlier criticism.

Speaking of the ACLU, did you know they have received more than 900 complaints so far over the enhanced gropings, er, pat downs?

The story lists several stories of gropings, and you can read more stories here. Yet, for all that, the ACLU is mostly silent. Many people (I can guess which side of the political aisle they sit on) criticized me in my previous two posts about the ACLU being absent (interestingly, they mostly cited the exact same ACLU article I provided in the first story), yet, my point still stands: the ACLU is mentioning the issue of enhanced pat downs (without even the courtesy of dinner and a movie), but doing nothing about it. Usually, one can count on the threat of a lawsuit, or even an actual lawsuit, from the ACLU. Or, they might be DEMANDING records and government information.

Remember the so-called “domestic wiretapping” issue, which was anything but, and, of course, not actually intrusive? They went ballistic. Here? It’s all “just send us your groping stories.” Maybe the ACLU plans to submit them to Penthouse letters or something.

As noted above, the ACLU has made records requests. Moreover, in the time between Teach's initial post on November 16 and his follow-up on November 25, the ACLU also posted an online petition where users could send complaints to DHS Sec. Janet Napolitano, published a "Know Your Rights" guide for travelers, and sifted through the hundreds of complaints to publish a guide explaining what travelers can expect to encounter because of the new procedures.

I'd imagine they haven't yet filed suit because the new procedures are, well, new. Generally speaking, you need to find someone whose civil rights were violated before you can file a civil rights lawsuit. And this, as the ACLU notes, is one purpose of collecting the stories.

I realize that at this point this post is probably overkill, but moronic as people like Teach or Mark Ames can be, they do have some influence, and their particularly egregious lies are worth debunking in full. (And Limbaugh of course has a massive following.) This crap gets picked up on Twitter feeds, reposted in online newspaper forums, cut-and-pasted into blog comments, and reiterated at pubs and dinner tables. It cheapens and dumbs down the public debate, and on a pretty damned important issue.