Life, Liberty, & the ACLU

By Young, Cathy | Reason, October 1994 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Life, Liberty, & the ACLU


Young, Cathy, Reason


Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, on rights in the age of P.C.

Since its founding in 1920, the American Civil LIberties Union has arguably been both the highest-profile and the most controversial legal organization in the country. From its early involvement with such well-known defendants as John Scopes and the Scottsboro Boys to its more recent support of free-speech rights for Nazis and opposition to the death penalty, the ACLU has had a major impact on how constitutional rights and civil liberties are discussed and debated. Not surprisingly, the group is also a lightning rod for contrary opinions. While supporters applaud an organization committed to the preservation of civil liberties, critics decry a group increasingly dedicated to left-liberal politics.

The 1991 election of Nadine Strossen as president of the ACLU was widely interpreted as an attempt to return to the group's traditional emphasis on civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press as opposed to its involvement with modish issues such as comparable worth and government aid to the homeless. Strossen is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor of constitutional law at New York University Law School. As a founding member of the National Coalition Against Censorship's Working Group on Women, she has been a leading supporter of free speech; her book Defending Pornography: Free Speech and the Fight for Women's Rights (Scribner), which will be published in October, articulates a feminist case against pro-censorship feminists.

"[The ACLU's] motto has not changed from 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,'" says Strossen. While few libertarians would find fault with that Jeffersonian aphorism, it is clear that the ACLU's definition of liberty differs dramatically from that of most classical liberals. In the following interview with Contributing Editor Cathy Young, Strossen discusses those differences and articulates the logic behind them.

Reason: What are your priorities as president of the ACLU?

Nadine Strossen: My priority is to be a prominent, visible spokesperson for civil liberties. Recent events have revealed that civil liberties are never going to be secure unless there is public understanding and support for them. The Supreme Court issues decisions that are protective of rights that are not supported by at least substantial minorities of the population. Politicians run against the Court, and you get something like the Reagan and Bush presidencies stacking the Court and seriously endangering some of our most fundamental rights.

Take two examples where there actually was a great deal of success in eroding rights: reproductive freedom and separation of church and state. Despite the fact that overturning Roe v. Wade and school-prayer decisions were major agenda items for the Reagan and Bush administrations, they did not literally succeed in accomplishing those goals. But reproductive freedom has shrunk, in terms of the regulations the court has allowed states to impose. As a practical matter, that makes abortions very difficult to obtain for many women in this country.

And, although the court did not overturn its school-prayer decisions, it has weakened the standard it uses to review religious incursions into government and governmental involvement with religion. So we are now fighting off a wave of legislative efforts to get prayer into schools in various indirect ways, the likes of which I hadn't imagined I'd ever see again in my lifetime. By last count, we have eight states and the District of Columbia that have passed laws mandating everything from a moment of silence to a prayer.

The most unique and important function that we serve is to be around all over the country to respond to these blatant violations of rights. We have to be sure that the people are going to support basic principles so that demagogues cannot be elected running against the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court when it supports the Bill of Rights.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Life, Liberty, & the ACLU
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?