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Spotlight on the A.C.L.U.

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Campaign ’88 has yielded another nugget of political wisdom: never join an organization more controversial than the Boy Scouts or the American Automobile Association. Had Michael Dukakis known that membership in the American Civil Liberties Union would identify him personally with every position it has taken — and some it has not — he might have rethought those $20 annual dues.

The A.C.L.U. has replaced the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance as George Bush’s hot-button “values” issue, quite an achievement for a 68-year-old association with 250,000 members that was until recently often confused with a large California school with a good football team. One of Bush’s most effective thrusts in the first debate was his list of causes the A.C.L.U. — and, by extension, Dukakis — supposedly favors: removing the tax exemption from the Roman Catholic Church, repealing child-pornography laws, deleting “God” on the currency and dismantling the movie-ratings system. Bush fumed, “I don’t want my ten-year-old grandchild to go into an X-rated movie.”

Does Dukakis want Bush’s ten-year-old grandchild to see Deep Throat? Not likely. Nor does the A.C.L.U., which explains that it is not pro-pornography but is anti-censorship. Says executive director Ira Glasser: “Anyone who uses a child in pornography is violating the law and should be prosecuted, period.” The group has not spent one cent to dismantle the movie ratings but has merely met with the judges to find ways to make it less categorical.

These are distinctions not easily made. The causes that receive the backing of the A.C.L.U. — which is dedicated to defending the individual freedoms in the Bill of Rights — often require that even its supporters hold their noses. The A.C.L.U. has made enemies left and right in defense of draft-card burners during the Viet Nam War, Jehovah’s Witnesses who choose not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie, Ill., and a fair trial for Oliver North. Says William Schneider, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: “Being linked to the A.C.L.U. is a problem because it takes up unpopular causes. Presidential candidates prefer popular causes.”

In an effort to distance himself from the organization, Dukakis last week listed his disagreements with the A.C.L.U., which coincided precisely with the issues Bush had cited in the debate. Dukakis also named cases where the A.C.L.U. has sued his Massachusetts administration — over random roadblocks and for resisting the assignment of foster children to gay couples. So successful has Bush been in making the A.C.L.U. into a boogeyman that even his friend Dick Thornburgh, the new Attorney General, has had to scramble away from the group. He was a director of the Pittsburgh A.C.L.U. chapter from 1966 to 1969.

Roger Baldwin founded the A.C.L.U. in 1920 to combat the deportation of aliens ordered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, win the rights of workers to organize, and secure release of those imprisoned for expressing antiwar sentiments. It defended John Scopes’ right to teach evolution and opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In the past year it teamed up with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch to oppose limits on cigarette advertising. Along with many Republicans, it has fought new campaign-spending laws on the ground that they abridge free speech. It is also known for its Grinch-like involvement in banning religious displays on municipal property at Christmas. Most of its 6,000 clients a year are not, as Washington Legal Foundation general counsel Daniel Popeo says, “rapists, serial killers, terrorists, Nazis, dope dealers and illegal aliens” but ordinary citizens: a schoolteacher fired after writing a letter to the editor, a black man alleging that his voting rights were violated, a couple who cannot get a mortgage because the wife’s income does not count.

But its single-minded defense of civil liberties takes the A.C.L.U. to places that many moderate Americans do not want to go. Robert Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was opposed by the A.C.L.U., says, “It’s not wrong in its defense of existing civil liberties but in its effort to create new ones.” It successfully worked to expand the right to privacy to include abortion, and it is currently working to expand it to cover the right not to be tested for drugs without some evidence of use.

The attention has not been all bad for the A.C.L.U. This week the organization airs its first money-raising TV ads, featuring Burt Lancaster, Barbra Streisand’s rendition of America the Beautiful and the stars of L.A. Law. Danny Goldberg, the group’s Southern California chairman, has raised $30,000 to pay for airtime for the ads. “People do not get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I think I’ll join the A.C.L.U.,’ ” says Glasser, who normally receives only a handful of unsolicited calls a year. “But now we are getting about 100 calls a day.”

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