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ACLU has new constituency after 9/11

Monday, December 02, 2002

By Ron Kampeas, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Whether protecting the disenfranchised or standing up for the right to offend, the American Civil Liberties Union has sided with those claiming they were wronged, even if it meant a distinctly minority stand.

 
 
ACLU's docket of rights cases

The American Civil Liberties Union's membership has surged since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and enactment of the government's tough new anti-terrorism measures. Some of the group's successes and failures since its founding in 1920:

1920: Roger Baldwin and others opposed to World War I establish the ACLU to help release other anti-war protesters still in prison and to oppose a crackdown against anarchists.

1925: The ACLU is a friend of the court in the trial of John T. Scopes, the teacher who ignored Tennessee laws against the teaching of evolution; Scopes is convicted, but the case helps roll back Bible-based teaching in public schools.

1920s-1930s: A series of successful challenges against the banning of "obscene" books, including James Joyce "Ulysses."

1938: Wins the right of children of Jehovah's Witnesses not to salute the American flag in schools.

1944: Its campaign to end the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II ends with the Supreme Court upholding the internment.

1950s: In a series of suits, successfully challenges anti-communist "loyalty oaths" in government and business.

1960s: A series of court decisions wins the right of indigent defendants to counsel and the barring of evidence obtained in illegal searches.

1978: Successfully defends the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Il., a Chicago suburb with a heavy presence of Holocaust survivors.

   
 

But since Sept. 11 and the government's expansive campaign of monitoring and detention, people are turning to the 82-year-old organization to help safeguard their liberties. Among them are conservatives who made the phrase "card-carrying member of the ACLU" a political insult, but who now are signing up.

"Larger numbers of American people have realized that the ACLU is fundamentally a patriotic organization," executive director Anthony Romero said. There are now 330,000 dues-paying members, 50,000 of whom joined after the attacks.

The group has been in the thick of legal challenges to the government's broadening anti-terror powers.

Last week, in response to an ACLU lawsuit, the government agreed to tell the group by mid-January which documents it is willing to release about its increased surveillance activities.

Especially notable among the new enthusiasts are conservatives who once thought the ACLU represented everything that was wrong with the left.

"They are very useful and productive force in jurisprudence," said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

Conservatives such as Hyde are mindful of the history of an organization that was lonely in its defense of positions now accepted as universal: Blacks who suffered spurious prosecutions in the 1930s, Japanese interned in the 1940s, books banned as obscene now regarded as part of the literary canon.

The group continues to exasperate some with uncompromising positions -- against a Ten Commandments monument in a Frederick, Md., park, against the government's attempt to get libraries to use computer filters to block sexually explicit material from children, against drug sweeps that it claims are racially motivated.

For the first time, the ACLU is spending part of its $50 million annual budget on a national television commercial. An actor portraying John Ashcroft crosses the phrase "We the People" from the Constitution as a narrator says the attorney general has "seized powers for the Bush administration no president has ever had."

"This focus on civil liberties post-9/11 has been a wonderful opportunity to reach out to constituencies who would never have thought of the ACLU as their home," said Nadine Strossen, the ACLU's president.

The organization has budgeted $3.5 million for a campaign that asks Americans to monitor their government monitors and report abuses. It is a mirror image to the government's plan to empower some Americans to check on their neighbors, under a program known as the Terrorism Information and Prevention System.

"When you have the highest ranking law enforcement official in the country saying either you're with me or against me, and that your tactics aid the terrorists, that rubs people the wrong way," Romero said.

That includes conservatives who bridle at government intrusions into privacy.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have said they will consider serving as consultants for the group when they leave Congress next month.

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