A limited love of liberty

By April 24, 2009

When the American Civil Liberties Union comes under attack, the salvos are often launched from the right. The ACLU, after all, is as enthusiastic about protecting the interests of feminists, gays, abortionist-rights campaigners and immigrants, legal or illegal, as it is uninterested in preventing the abuse of anti-abortion protesters, the censorship of media conservatives and the bullying of college evangelical groups for their opposition to homosexuality. On the right, the phrase "card-carrying member of the ACLU" is an insult; on the left, it is a credential.

But now comes an anti-ACLU barrage from an unusual source: a prominent liberal. Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, astute social critic and contributor to the Nation magazine and National Public Radio, is also a former member of the ACLU national board. She left the organization in disgust in 2006 and has recorded her grievances in "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU." It is a short, vehement book. Even the cover photo is vehement: It shows a densely packed herd of sheep — stand-ins for the "easily herded" board members and donors who, Ms. Kaminer says, have allowed the ACLU to unravel under the leadership of Anthony Romero. The board and donors, she says, have willfully overlooked the "skullduggery" that has beset the national office since Mr. Romero’s installation as executive director in 2002.

But Ms. Kaminer saves most of her venom for Mr. Romero himself. He is dishonest and secretive, she says; he withholds crucial information from the board of directors and misuses the organization’s now vast wealth, which was largely built on anti-Bush donations and handouts to encourage "diversity" work. Mr. Romero’s management style, she claims, is to reward personal loyalty, deter internal dissent and tighten control over the ACLU affiliates around the country.

While on the board, Ms. Kaminer bluntly criticized the organization; she soon became a punching bag for Romero loyalists, as did the outspoken Michael Meyers, a fellow board member. In 2005, Mr. Meyers lost his bid for re- election, and Ms. Kaminer later chose not to run for another term, possibly because she was almost certain to lose.

Worst Instincts
By Wendy Kaminer
(Beacon, 149 pages, $24.95)

The criticism by Ms. Kaminer and Mr. Myers failed to gain traction, partly because the money kept rolling in, partly because other board members imagined that the ACLU was so besieged by the Bush administration that it couldn’t tolerate internal squabbling. Another factor in the futility of protest: Mr. Romero is gay and Latino, an irrelevancy to most of us but on a diversity-minded board a useful inoculation against criticism or removal.

To qualify for matching federal grants from donors working for government, the author says, Mr. Romero signed a contract agreeing not to hire anyone from post-9/11 federal watch lists ("blacklists" to many civil libertarians). In effect, he was quietly advancing the influence of the Patriot Act even as the ACLU was opposing it.

In another secret move, according to Ms. Kaminer, Mr. Romero signed a grant agreement with the Ford Foundation promising that the ACLU would not "promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state." "Promoting violence" is open to broad interpretation, Ms. Kaminer notes, and promoting "bigotry" could apply to opponents of affirmative action and resistance to college speech codes — in other words, the agreement could apply to practitioners of free speech, however repellent ACLU members might find their views. Nadine Strossen, who was the president of the ACLU at the time, loyally (and fatuously) defended her boss, Mr. Romero, proposing that the Ford terms be considered "conditions" rather than "restrictions."

Ms. Kaminer is particularly vexed that the ACLU keeps trumpeting work that the organization really hasn’t done. On representing Guantanamo detainees, the organization said in a fund-raising letter: "The truth is that if the ACLU doesn’t step forward and take on this work, no one else will." In fact, the tiny and poorly funded Center for Constitutional Rights took on the task, while the ACLU stayed on the sidelines for years with no Guantanamo clients at all. Then, Ms. Kaminer says, it tried "jumping in front of the pack right before the finish line . . . becoming the Rosie Ruiz of advocacy groups." Last April, when The Wall Street Journal ran a story about the ACLU’s much delayed and minimal action on Guantanamo — under the headline, "ACLU to Back-Up Defense of 9/11 Detainees" — the organization reprinted the article under a headline that was spiffier but untrue: "ACLU Leads Defense Effort for Alleged 9/11 Conspirators."

In 2006, the ACLU descended into self-satire by drawing up a gag order to cover its own board members — no public criticism of policies or personnel, because speaking out might hurt fund raising. When word got out, a storm of ridicule forced the withdrawal of the plan. But Ms. Kaminer notes that only six of the 53 ACLU affiliates protested the no-dissent policy; the ACLU apparently couldn’t be bothered to defend its own right to free speech.

Only at the end of the book, in a section that seems almost tacked on, does Ms. Kaminer get to the core of the problem: that the many troubling decisions and strange moves undertaken during Mr. Romero’s tenure actually reflect a decisive shift in the ACLU’s sense of mission. "The ACLU," she writes, "began describing itself as a ‘social justice organization,’ and its non-partisan commitment to civil liberty shrank — especially its commitment to free speech — while its vision of equality expanded."

New organizations with a stronger commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly now do the jobs that the ACLU declines to do. These groups include the Alliance Defense Fund and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Ms. Kaminer sums it up: "The ACLU is becoming just anther liberal human-rights, social- justice advocate that reliably defends the rights of liberal speakers." The trajectory is a common one, affecting once-neutral organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, the Modern Language Association, Amnesty International and, now, the ACLU.