The once-vital group is being captured from within by hyper-partisan activists
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a series of tweets yesterday on their stance on a proposed new wave of pandemic legislation. The organisation announced that it supported vaccine mandates – which most people might think of as an infringement of civil liberties, even if a necessary one — on the grounds that “far from compromising them, vaccine mandates actually further civil liberties”.
What makes this statement so remarkable? Well, the founding statement of the ACLU set out its intentions as being “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution”. The entire modus operandi of the ACLU has been to provide legal challenges to any state infringement on these fundamental rights, even if the people in question are morally odious.
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A New York Times piece released in June examined the identity crisis within the ACLU, and framed it as a generational issue: essentially, that the battle between the older staff who hold traditional liberal views on issues like free speech and open debate are clashing with increasingly partisan, activist young lawyers who place their commitment to social justice above everything else.
This is not wrong — attitudes certainly have shifted on issues like censorship between millennials and their parent’s generation — but it does not capture the full extent of the problem. Why, exactly, did all these young employees at the ACLU suddenly decide to turn against the very principles that the organisation was founded upon?
A clue may be found in the ACLU’s financial statements. Donald Trump’s 2016 election was a monetary gift for liberal institutions, and the ACLU enjoyed a hefty Trump windfall. The union raised over $1million in donations within a day of the Republican nominee’s electoral victory, and top lawyers enjoyed significant pay-rises. The donation money was also put towards a hiring drive, massively expanding the scope of its operations with young ‘activist-lawyers’, who were less interested in abstract ideals of liberal justice and fairness and more interested in fighting the supposed rise of fascism in the US. One internal meeting ended in a heated argument, with young staffers demanding that the ACLU “no longer defend White Supremacists”.
While the ACLU has historically strived to paint itself as being a politically-neutral organisation, the post-Trump years have shown an undeniable shift away from non-partisanship. Perhaps the most egregious example of the ACLU’s defence towards the Democratic Party was their decision to spend $800,000 on campaign ads promoting Georgia Governor-hopeful Stacey Abrams, ostensibly for her work on supporting voting transparency. The group also broke with tradition in actively rallying against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as attempting to oust prosecutors who stood in the way of criminal justice reforms.
While previous ACLU icons like Ira Glasser, a Jewish man who defended the first amendment rights of actual fascists, shunned the media spotlight, the new batch of lawyers presented themselves as partisan celebrities. Chase Strangio, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s ‘Transgender Justice’ project, was named as a Time magazine top 100 most influential person, and regularly jumps on his social media account to release statements that would have once been unthinkable from a free-speech lawyer. He proudly declared that gender critical author Abigail Shrier should have her books censored, and that “Stopping the circulation of [Shrier’s] book and these ideas is a 100% a hill I want to die on”.
The ‘civil liberties’ component of the ACLU is starting to seem like distant history.