Life, Liberty, & the ACLU

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

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. …

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