Thursday, May 24, 2007

Uncivil Liberties

From yesterday's Opinion Journal, a must read essay by Wendy Kaminer on the ACLU's increasing adoption of politically motivated double standards:

The ACLU was even AWOL in one of the most visible and frightening free-speech controversies in recent years--the Muhammad cartoons, which many condemned as "hate speech." When Muslim groups violently protested the cartoons (first published in the Danish press), when American newspapers declined to publish them for fear of reprisals, and when the U.S. State Department condemned their publication--the ACLU exercised its right to remain silent. In fact, its press office actually advised ducking questions about the cartoons that might arise during discussions of torture at Abu Ghraib. A set of talking points from the press office recommended responding to questions about the cartoons by exhorting the U.S. government to "demonstrate . . . that it is taking the Abu Ghraib images seriously." (This was later spun as an effort to stay on message about abuses at Abu Ghraib.)

Not until an ACLU donor complained about this silence on the cartoon controversy, and questions about it were raised before the ACLU board, did ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero speak up--quietly. He mentioned the controversy in a relatively obscure dinner speech to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He sent a letter to the University of Illinois urging it not to discipline student editors who published the cartoons in a campus paper. In a letter to the ACLU board, Mr. Romero both denied and defended the ACLU's relative silence: "With regard to the cartoons, rather than put out a hortatory statement that no one would read (except insiders) but might make us feel good about ourselves, we have tried to engage in thoughtful forums and discussions that relate to the issue. Speaking out on an issue involves more than slapping a paragraph together and posting it on a website."

Perhaps. But, like other advocacy groups, the ACLU routinely circulates hortatory statements to insiders that herald the organization's important work. And it regularly posts slapped-together paragraphs on the ACLU Web site (and in emails) about the abuses of the Bush administration, among other subjects. In fact, much of the ACLU's post 9/11 work (and its budget priorities) involves public education. Whatever Mr. Romero's reasons for staying out of the cartoon controversy, they did not include disdain for paying lip service to free speech.

Why did the ACLU avoid issuing a loud and clear public statement decrying violent efforts to suppress the Muhammad cartoons? Its silence may have reflected growing sympathy among ACLU leaders and supporters for restricting what many liberals condemn as hate speech. "Take hate speech," Mr. Romero remarked to the New York Times in May 2006. "While believing in free speech, we do not believe in or condone speech that attacks minorities." (He was commenting on a proposal to bar board members from criticizing the ACLU--a proposal that was amended only after being exposed in the Times.)

The American Liberal Liberties Union


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