Civil Liberties and Civil Commitment

By Szasz, Thomas | Freeman, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Civil Liberties and Civil Commitment


Szasz, Thomas, Freeman


Defenders of civil liberties readily recognize when some state interventions-such as censorship of the press or forced religious observances-violate civil liberties. However, many of the same defenders of civil liberties are unable or refuse to recognize when certain other state interventions-such as civil commitment-violate civil liberties.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims to be the premier American organization for the protection of civil liberties. (It does not claim to be a "libertarian" organization.) The Union's wcbsitc states: "The ACLU's mission is to fight civil libertics violations wherever and whenever they occur. . . . We're not anti-anything. The only things we fight are attempts to take away or limit your civil liberties, like your right to practice any religion you want (or none at all). . . . The ACLU is our nation's guardian of liberty."

During its first quarter of a century the ACLU took no notice of psychiatric coercions. Once it did, it was love at first sight. Charles L. Markmann, the official historian of the ACLU, proudly relates how, after World War II, the ACLU "began to draft model statutes for the commitment of the insane." The ACLU has never wavered in its support of involuntary mental hospitalization and the insanity defense.

For many years Aryeh Neier was the executive director of the ACLU. In his recent autobiography, he relates that when he joined the New York Civil Liberties Union in 1963, "I knew little about mental commitment. The issue was not on the civil liberties agenda. I had not then read the works of Thomas Szasz. ..."

Unfortunately, Neier did not read my writings very carefully. In 1968 he formed a special action group in the ACLU, called the Civil Liberties and Mental Illness Litigation Project. This group became, in effect, a mouthpiece of organized psychiatry, devoting its efforts to bolstering the legal foundations of psychiatric coercions and excuses. In 1976, the Union issued a formal Policy Guide on Civil Commitment, a document that might as well have been written by the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association.

Twenty years later the ACLU issued a fresh endorsement of psychiatric brutalities. In a book titled The Rights of People With Mental Disabilities, the ACLU endorsed not only deprivation of liberty as "hospitalization," but also poisoning as "drug treatment": "|U|nlike criminal defendants, people facing commitment can be preventively detained for behavior that violates no law because the confinement is to an institution, not a prison, and the purpose is treatment, not punishment. ... At its root the right to treatment is an assertion that the government has an obligation not just to protect institutionalized individuals or leave them alone, but to provide services that will improve their lives. . . . The difference between appropriate medication and chemical restraint is often as much a metaphysical as a legal or medical question."

Whether a particular drug is appropriate for what ails a particular patient is a medical and scientific question. Whether a patient uses a drug voluntarily or whether it is introduced into his body against his explicit objection, by agents of the state using physical force, is a common sense question. Why does the ACLU conflate and confuse these wholly separate issues? Cui bono?

Civil Liberties Are Only for Sane People

A person looking at the term "American Civil Liberties Union" and told that it is the name of an organization concerned with protecting the American people's right to free speech would assume that the Union is opposed to incarcerating innocent persons because of what they say. …

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