Civil Liberties

The Endangered ACLU


Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Wendy Kaminer plays taps for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Once the nation's leading civil liberties group and a reliable defender of everyone's speech rights," she argues, "the ACLU is being transformed into just another liberal human-rights group that reliably defends the rights of liberal speakers."

Kaminer's evidence consists mostly of cases where the group has refrained from taking a position, as opposed to actively taking the wrong side. But there's also this:

Last March, the ACLU announced its support for a bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) aimed at barring antiabortion centers from advertising "abortion counseling" services. While some crisis pregnancy centers that offer abortion counseling can fairly be accused of engaging in a bait and switch (trying to lure women seeking abortions into counseling sessions with antiabortion advocates), they're also engaged in political speech at the core of First Amendment protections. Not surprisingly, the ACLU's endorsement of legislation restricting this speech generated controversy when it was reported in the New York Sun. How did ACLU leaders respond? The press release announcing support for the Maloney bill was deleted from the ACLU Web site. Today, one year later, the national board is seriously considering adopting a policy on commercial speech that would support restrictions on advertising by nonprofit antiabortion clinics.

This isn't the first time this tension within the union has spilled into print. Back in 1990, Reason ran a cover story called "Has the ACLU Sold Out?"; it described a similar split between people who put civil liberties first and people who think liberty is a euphemism for liberal. After that article ran, the civil libertarians regained the upper hand, but apparently they didn't vanquish the other side for good.

Still, at a time when Bob Barr can be a consultant to the ACLU and the Texas branch can tiptoe toward the Second Amendment, Kaminer's report of the group's decline seems premature. Hopefully her article will serve as a rallying cry, not an obituary.