Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More on ACLU’s Internal Problems

The NY Sun has another article about the internal problems at the ACLU, this one focusing on Anthony Romero’s tenure as executive director, which began shortly before 9/11. One of the main criticisms, and one I agree with completely, is that Romero had no background as a civil libertarian prior to taking over:

Mr. Romero, a Bronx native, is the first Hispanic and the first openly gay person to hold the executive director’s job. However, he had little prior record of civil liberties activism and has been dogged by complaints that he is not sufficiently devoted to the ACLU’s core principles.

“He’s not a civil libertarian,” one of Mr. Romero’s most persistent critics, Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said. “He doesn’t have civil liberties in his bones. He’s a creature of the Ford Foundation. This guy acts just like a foundation executive.”

I think the ACLU board made a big mistake bringing in what amounts to a manager rather than a committed civil libertarian to run the group. I’m sure he’s a good fundraiser, but the focus of the ACLU has clearly drifted during his tenure. And the fact is that you can hire fundraisers to do what he does, but you don’t put them in charge of an advocacy group. Such groups run only on the passion and commitment of their leaders. Someone like Ira Glasser, who has a real track record of fighting for liberty, is who you want in charge.

More recently, the ACLU has drawn unwanted attention for considering proposals to bar board members from publicly expressing disagreement with the organization’s policies or disparaging the performance of its staff. At an ACLU meeting in April, Mr. Romero lashed out at a board member who has been openly critical of him, Wendy Kaminer, and chastised another board member for the expression on her face during his verbal fusillade. He later apologized.

This sort of behavior just shouldn’t be tolerated, especially in an organization like this. And frankly, Romero’s claim now that he opposes those policies rings hollow. He was the one who tried to get Kaminer and Meyers thrown off the ACLU board, which is what led to the committee being appointed to “define the role” of board members. If he was opposed to them, why didn’t he say so in January when they first came up? And if he really opposed such policies, why does he attempt to achieve the same thing by browbeating those on the board who disagree with him? Wendy Kaminer has been a valuable voice in the ACLU and for liberty for a long time. Like board president Nadine Strossen, she is a feminist who has managed to stay committed to individual rights and not fall for the group rights rhetoric of what Kaminer calls “protectionist feminism”. If the ACLU loses people like her, they’ve lost a lot.

Some members have complained that the organization was surprisingly meek earlier this year as Islamic radicals used threats of violence to dissuade newspapers in Europe and America from publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

An author and former trustee of the ACLU’s Massachusetts affiliate, Richard Rosenfeld, said he urged national leaders of the organization to speak out. “Frankly, I got nowhere,” he said.

Mr. Romero told the Sun that the controversy was playing out overseas and that intervening would have constituted “very dangerous mission creep” for a group devoted to American civil liberties.

“Who was shutting down the Muslim cartoons? The Danish government. We don’t weigh in with the Mozambique government when it shuts down Mozambiquan newspapers,” he said.

What’s sad is that he doesn’t even have the basic facts about the situation correct. The Danish government did not shut down the Muslim cartoons; in fact, they explicitly said they would not and could not do so. The threat to liberty in that country came from mobs screaming death threats. And as I wrote of many times, that situation also had many spin-offs in America, including colleges violating the free speech rights of student newspapers, student groups and even professors precisely because of that perceived threat of violence here. And where was the ACLU? Dead silent. Worse yet, right in the middle of the controversy, the Florida ACLU elected a board member who came out in favor of banning blasphemy and “hate speech” such as those cartoons. There is no room in the ACLU for anyone with such opinions.

It’s time for Romero to go. It’s time for the ACLU to be run by a genuine civil libertarian. And by genuine libertarian, I mean someone who recognizes that all rights are individual, not collective. The ACLU must never fall for the groupthink so common even among the groups who tend to be their political allies. If they are to remain relevant, they must stand up for the rights of everyone, even those who are their political enemies. They must stand up just as strongly for the rights of homophobes and pro-lifers as they do for the rights of those who donate money to them.


  1. #1 Johnny Vector
    June 28, 2006

    I’m sure he’s a good fundraiser, but the focus of the ACLU has clearly drifted during his tenure.

    I’d be interested in seeing just what his impact has been on their fundraising. I have one data point, which is that I donated once, in 2002, and was then bombarded with such a deluge of additional fundraising requests that I never gave again. I’ll give my money to people like EFF, who send a simple letter at the end of the year asking if I’d like to continue my support, thank you very much.

    ACLU continues to pester me on a regular basis, so though I know they do a lot of good, I’ll spend my limited resources elsewhere.

    Too much fundraising can be as bad as too little.

  2. #2 steve s
    June 28, 2006

    Hear hear! Fire Tony Romero’s sorry ass.

    -Steve S (ACLU member since 2002)

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    June 28, 2006

    ACLU fundraising really has gone up since Romero took over, which I think can be attributed to two things. First, to 9/11 and the resulting power grab by government, which has motivated people to get involved. Second, to Romero’s ability to bring in grant money because he really understands the world of foundations and how to get money out of them. But as I said, you can hire fundraisers who specialize in that sort of thing, as many non-profits do. You just don’t put them in charge.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    June 28, 2006

    I saw Nadine Strossen, shortly after she took on the ACLU presidency, debate Darryl Gates, not long after he had resigned as Los Angeles police chief following the Rodney Long beating videotape riots.

    This should’ve been a slam dunk, but it went the other way: Gates mopped the floor with Strossen with one hand tied behind his back, using elementary evasion and diversion tactics. Her performance was so abject that I swore never to join or contribute to the ACLU as long as she held her job.

    Unfortunately, she’s still there – and the need for a functional & competent national organization of civil-liberties advocates is greater than ever. The ACLU’s performance in the last several years has not been as pathetically dismal as, say, that of the Democratic Party, but it has still failed to rise to the present challenge.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    June 28, 2006

    Oops – that should have said “the Rodney King beating videotape riots…”

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