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Nadine Strossen is the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School. From 1991 through 2008, she served as President of the American Civil Liberties Union,[…]

Why do we need the A.C.L.U. if the government is supposed to protect our rights?

Nadine Strossen: American Civil Liberties Union and I say that because I see graffiti including by the way fund raising letters from some anti-liberties organizations that say ACLU stands for everything from Always Causing Legal Unrest to All Criminals Love Us to and this one is really pernicious…the Anti-Christian Liberties Union, but it was a name…it was an organization that was founded in….well, its predecessor was in 1918 the American Union Against Militarism, redubbed the ACLU as a split off organization in 1920 and if I have to summarize it in a sound byte, I know you are giving me more than a sound byte, we really defend all fundamental freedoms for all people against violations by government officials in the United States. I mean that is American officials, wherever their violations might be. Unfortunately, in the recent past, we have seen violations committed all over the world by American government officials, but we would not try to substitute for Amnesty International for example in criticizing human rights violations by other governments.I think that there is a lot that can be done within the government to protect individual rights that certainly is a responsibility of the Department of Justice to enforce the law and what is more prominent of our law than the US Constitution. That said, would you want to trust any attorney general that we have ever had in history or any Department of Justice. Some have been better than others, and especially, when we had an attorney general in the World War II era who had gone through the ACLU leadership. He was actually the one who founded the Civil Rights Bureau of the Justice Department and to this day, it still does very important positive work in some areas, but ultimately the question is who is watching the watchdogs and you definitely need to have independent organizations that are not in any way beholden to political pressure, that are independent, that are nonpartisan to not only provide extra enforcement but also different perspectives, because quite frankly, there are different perspectives and one of my favorite statements about the spirit of liberty comes from Learned Hand, who gave… a great judge from New York Federal Judge, who gave a speech called The Spirit of Liberty. I believe this quote comes from that speech in which he said, liberty is never too sure of itself. He probably said it a little bit more elegantly, but that was the idea that you have to question, you have to be open to different perspectives to debate. So, I truly respect people who have a very different view on abortion who believe that the fetus at least at some point should be respected as a person under the Constitution that is entitled to independent rights and if you had that view, then you should be advocating for it and then there are people who have different perspectives when there are rights that conflict and I guess that would be an example for those. Exactly. Here, of course, civil libertarians can and do disagree with each other when the ACLU national board gets together four times a year for meetings that are two solid days each, from in the morning till the evening, Saturday and Sunday, 83 of them by the way, most of whom are lawyers and so it is pretty intense to preside over those debates. One of the things that we do is to debate issues where there is not consensus among us. We may have…obviously we have consensus as to the general values, but for example how do you reconcile a defendant's right to… a criminal defendant's right to fair trial and due process of law on the one hand with freedom of the press and the public's right to know under the First Amendment. On the other hand, if they come in conflict, some criminal defendants believe that their right to a fair trial will be jeopardized by open access to the media. Other people believe that a defendant's right to fair trial right is actually enhanced by having the media there, shining the spotlight on the trial, so even sharing the exact same goals, you can come out differently as to how they should be reconciled in particular cases and one thing I would say that the ACLU tries to do and is one of the reasons why I have devoted my life to the ACLU rather than the many other wonderful organizations that address these issues is that we are the only one that is equally devoted to all fundamental rights for all people. There are other organizations that focus on particular rights such as First Amendment rights or rights of particular groups of people such as journalists or racial minorities or women and for those organizations it is always clear, when there is an issue of tension or conflict between rights which ones will predominate for them. For us, it is not clear. We come at it the same way one would hope the government would, which is not an automatically preference one set of rights or rights of one set of people, but to do our best to maximally respect and accommodate all rights that are in tension with each other. It is one of the reasons for example that for us is a no brainer to defend the rights of anti-abortion protesters even when they are demonstrating outside the clinics of our usual client, Planned Parenthood when it comes to abortion issues, but the Reproductive Freedom Movement usually departs from the ACLU when we are defending rights of picketers outside the clinics and I have to say we draw the line at harassment and obstruction, but we draw the line much closer to freedom of speech than those who are…whose sole mission is reproductive freedom would do.


Recorded On: 2/14/08