How the ACLU got woke, became political, and changed its mission

April 1, 2021 • 1:00 pm

I’ve written before about the newish movie “Mighty Ira“, a documentary about former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) head Ira Glasser and his involvement in civil-liberties litigation in the 1970s (see my posts here and here). I highly recommend the movie, as it’s not just about Glasser or the ACLU, but also involves baseball, Jackie Robinson, and William F. Buckley. If you’re into free speech or civil liberties, and want to see them defended as they should be defended, see the movie.

In the movie, Glasser makes an offhand comment or two about how the ACLU has changed direction since he was its head, and implies he doesn’t much approve of that change. This becomes clearer in the new Tablet article below, which expands on and details something I’ve said for a while: the ACLU, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, is going down the tubes. And they’re both disintegrating for the same reason: Wokeness, i.e., they’re abandoning their original mission to engage in political activities promoting aspects of “social justice” not connected with their avowed missions.

The ACLU long had a special place in my heart because they represented me for free when I discovered I’d been drafted illegally as a conscientious objector in 1972. With their help, we initiated a successful class action suit, and it got many COs who were in my predicament released from required service. (I’ve told this story before.)

Now, however, the ACLU is making noises about how free speech might not be all it’s cracked up to be. And they’re adopting a big-time transgender agenda headed by lawyer Chase Strangio, described below. With the latter, the ACLU is taking the distinctly odd position that medically unmodified biological men who identify as women should be treated for all purposes as biological women, including sports. (The “civil liberties” of the women who have to compete against these trans women are, of course, neglected.) The original mission of the ACLU was to defend the First Amendment, no matter how offensive someone’s free speech might be (ergo they defended the Nazis in the famous Skokie case). Now they’re engaged in dismantling Title IX and backing off on free speech.

Click on the screenshot to read:

A lot of the article recounts Glasser’s history in his days with the ACLU, and sketches what the movie is about, but there’s also some telling criticism of the organization itself as its changed its mission. This is what they’re up to now:

“My successor, and the board of directors that have supported him, have basically tried to transform the organization from a politically neutral, nonpartisan civil liberties organization into a progressive liberal organization,” Glasser says about Anthony Romero, an ex-Ford Foundation executive who continues to serve as the ACLU’s executive director. According to former ACLU national board member Wendy Kaminer in her 2009 book Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, Romero and his enablers routinely engaged in the sort of undemocratic and unaccountable behavior practiced by the individuals and institutions the ACLU usually took to court, like withholding information (concerning a breach of ACLU members’ privacy, no less), shredding documents in violation of its own record-preservation and transparency procedures, and attempting to muzzle board members from criticizing the organization publicly. (“You sure that didn’t come out of Dick Cheney’s office?” remarked the late, great former Village Voice columnist and ACLU board member Nat Hentoff of this last gambit). Eerily prescient, Worst Instincts foreshadowed the hypocrisy and fecklessness that has since come to characterize the leadership of so many other, previously liberal institutions confronted by the forces of illiberalism within their own ranks.

In 2018, the ACLU spent over $1 million on advertisements likening Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, essentially accusing him of crimes for which he was never tried or convicted. More egregious than their brazen political partisanship was the way in which the ads traduced the presumption of innocence, a bedrock of American jurisprudence and a principle the ACLU was founded to uphold. Asked why his organization was willing to further violate its tradition of political neutrality, Faiz Shakir, a Democratic Party operative then serving as the ACLU’s national political director, was brutally honest. “People have funded us and I think they expect a return,” he said. Glasser also points to the group’s decision to run a television advertisement supporting then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as a telling sign of its transformation. “I mean, I love Stacey Abrams,” Glasser told me. “She has become my favorite political character in the country. But the ACLU has always stayed away from that. Nobody attacked Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan on their civil liberties violations more vigorously and strenuously than I did. But we always stayed away from political partisanship, and it was critical for the ACLU, virtually for all its history, to have standards that were as applicable to those most of us politically supported as to those who most of us politically opposed.”

I wrote about this incident in 2018, which was the first sign to me that the ACLU was backing off on a full-fledged defense of the First Amendment. The stand of the old ACLU resembled that of the University of Chicago’s Founding Principles: there was one overriding principle that trumped almost everything else: the fostering of a climate of free speech, thought, and discussion. Our Kalven Report made it another principle for the University to avoid taking stands on political, moral, and ideological issues, which were seen as compromising this primary mission by chilling the speech of dissenters. And that is precisely what the ACLU is doing now: allowing speech to be chilled, or even promoting, as does Chase Strangio with his censoriousness, the chilling of speech (see below).

More from Tablet:

Accompanying this influx of new members and money, however, were pressures for the group to become another run-of-the-mill #Resistance outfit. In 2017, the ACLU of Virginia had supported the right of white nationalists to rally in Charlottesville. But once the rally turned violent, the national ACLU circulated an internal document with new “case selection guidelines,” stipulating, “Speech that denigrates such [marginalized] groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality.” Before agreeing to take a free speech case, the document continued, the ACLU would now consider “the potential effect on marginalized communities,” whether the speech advances the goals of speakers whose “views are contrary to our values,” and the “structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur.” A manifestation of the ACLU’s new approach can be seen in the decision by one chapter to intervene in a high-profile case at Smith College, where the group amplified bogus claims of racism leveled by a student against some of the school’s custodial and cafeteria staff.

That’s the Wokeness that’s bringing down the organization: “Free speech for all, so long as they’re not the Oppressor.” The ACLU didn’t used to consider whether speech was “contrary to our values,” for its principle was that regardless of the values of the members, the First Amendment must be defended for all speakers.

Finally, the machinations of ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio:

If the public face of the ACLU was Ira Glasser during the latter part of the previous century, today that honor can be claimed by a staff attorney named Chase Strangio. Named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine last year, Strangio is the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice. Like many activists consumed by this issue, he is uncompromising in demanding strict adherence to a set of highly contestable orthodoxies, and merciless toward anyone who dares question them. Two women who have—J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, and Abigail Shrier, author of a book about the role of “peer contagion” in the rising rate of teenage girls declaring themselves transgender—are “closely aligned with white supremacists in power,” Strangio declared on Twitter, offering not a shred of evidence for this claim. “Stopping the circulation of [Shrier’s] book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on,” he wrote, a rather bizarre position for an ACLU employee to endorse. Strangio later deleted the tweet, explaining that his intention was not to call for the government to ban Shrier’s book, but rather “to create the information climate for the market to be more supportive of trans self-determination than the alternative.”

There’s a lot more, and I’ve already excerpted a much more than I should have; but these passages especially resonate with me.  We need someone like Ira Glasser back, but good luck in finding any leader in these troubled days to support an uncompromising defense of the First Amendment.

But congrats to Tablet, which is doing some damned good reporting these days.


h/t: Robert

22 thoughts on “How the ACLU got woke, became political, and changed its mission

  1. “Stopping the circulation of [Shrier’s] book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on,”

    Wow. You can’t get much more anti-civil liberties than that.

      1. Quoted in Jerry’s posting and elsewhere as, “Stopping the circulation of [Shrier’s] book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on”

  2. The BC Civil Liberties Association, of which I’m a member, seems to be going down the same road, although they aren’t as far down it as the ACLU. They aren’t yet publicly espousing any kind of restriction on speech or ideas (yet), and remain non-partisan.

    The progression goes something like this:
    – Start as an organization protecting the basic civil liberties like speech, association, assembly.
    –> Well, these are basic human rights, so let’s broaden our mission to the promotion of human rights.
    —> It’s a small step from promotion of human rights to promotion of social justice.
    —-> Once you’ve accepted social justice as your mission, then you start to become biased against those that would speak against it.

    We see every day that the promotion of social justice can be in conflict with the free speech rights of others. The question is, which side do you come down on?

    I keep an eye on the BCCLA for any evidence that they preference the “right” speech over free speech. If that happens, they’ll hear about it and I will cease my donations.

  3. Also in the current Tablet is an article called The Joke by Ani Wilcenski. The joke a comment made in fun that is used by cultural police to destroy a young man.

    I recently stopped my money contributions to ACLU due to its current bent.

  4. Chase Strangio has the strange habit of sending out tweets that are nothing but transgender ideology mantras over and over in all caps (TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN etc etc.) The effect is chilling and cultish, like something out of 1984.

    NOT like something out of the ACLU.

  5. I’ve also been dismayed by what’s happened to the ACLU. I was a proud “card-carrying member of the ACLU” since the 1988 election (back when I was a college freshman), and at the start of the Trump Administration, I even gave them some extra money beyond my regular contribution. It seemed like an organization that stood up for civil liberties, regardless of political ideology, was exactly what we needed then.

    But, in addition to their softening on free speech issues, I fear the ACLU is also losing its way on other civil liberties. The ACLU was never *only* about First Amendment issues; they were also strong defenders of due process rights for people accused of doing bad things (even terrible things). Just as with free speech, protecting due process inevitably means protecting the rights of people we don’t really like much. But those rights, too, are coming under fire by the Woke Left, and I’ve seen signs of that infecting the ACLU as well, specifically their rejection of the very idea of using the “clear and convincing evidence standard” before kicking students out of colleges and universities. It’s a sad day when the ACLU can no longer be counted on to wholeheartedly defend due process rights (as well as free speech).

  6. I wonder how the ACLU is doing on donations. Sadly, I suspect that aligning with the Woke agenda brings the dough in. I’m not accusing them of adjusting their policy based on receipts but clearly losing donations in the net would get their attention.

    1. I had been donating (in a small way) to the ACLU for a decade when I got a call from them to renew my membership because it had expired. It seemed to me that I had renewed only a few months before. When I investigated, I discovered that a second account had been created for me by the device of placing a “Mr.” in front of my name. So I had two accounts (one with the “Mr.” and one without) that I had been donating to for two years.

      This circumstance appeared either sloppy at best or sleezy at worst. Either way, I decided not to renew either account. I now make a small donation to Alabama Law Foundation (I don’t live in Alabama) instead.

      1. Very sleazy!

        Speaking of scams, my wife just received a letter from some company that told her that she had around $500 in unclaimed funds from the California State. They said they could get it for her if she paid $46 up front. Turns out she really did have $500 owed to her based on some Best Buy refund. Evidently, it was mailed to our old address long after we moved. Of course, the state doesn’t charge money to send this out, just a number of forms of id as described on their website. So I suppose this company would have charged $46 to fill out the forms and my wife would still have had to supply the identifying materials. These scammers think of every angle!

  7. Can I just say that while I cooked dinner and cleaned up today, I watched/listened to the 1998 Firing Line free speech debate, Resolved: The ACLU Is Full of Baloney, via YouTube. And it is absolutely fantastic. How I wish I would have been somebody who would watch Firing Line in 1998. It’s hosted by young MIchael Kinsley, and also includes Nadine Strossen, and a couple of other people on the ACLU side who I did not previously know, and they are all amazing. Wish I had started a Nadine Strossen fan club years ago. And of course, must go watch Mighty Ira ASAP.

  8. ” . . . Chase Strangio. Named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine last year . . . .”

    Does an accolade from Time magazine mean all that much nowadays? Did it ever?

  9. Last sentence of the first paragraph of the article reads oddly to me. Should ‘lies’ be ‘lay’?

    “They understood that the measure of democracy lies in the impartial application of its laws, and were prepared to defend anyone whose constitutional rights were trampled upon, irrespective of their political views or the repercussions that mounting such a defense might entail.”

  10. I never contributed to the ACLU. I made that decision many decades ago when they defended the rights of street musicians and other people to disturb the peace in the name of free speech.

    The trans issue has aroused my interest again. The ACLU is making choices as to which groups to support. Allowing men masquerading as women into women’s prisons or women’s sports puts women at a disadvantage, and the ACLU has decided to support those men at the expense of women. The ACLU has also signed on to the core belief expressed by trans activists that “gender” is determined by gender identity and not by one’s reproductive system (a preposterous notion). How you feel is just how you feel.

    I am gay, and gays are partly responsible for what is happening with transgender people. Gays are discriminated against because of their identity (as people who have sex with their own gender). That has been deemed illegal, which means that gays have now SECURED their rights based on their identity. So it would seem to make sense that trans people would ALSO secure their rights based on their identity — but their identities as real men and women are false. There are huge differences between gay and trans people. When a man says that he is attracted to other men, there is no evidence to the contrary. But when a man says he is a woman, there is a ton of evidence to the contrary — and indeed, his assertion that he is a woman could even be viewed as a kind of fraud. But the courts continue to apply the “identity” test to trans people even though it doesn’t fit. The courts haven’t figured out that being trans is a whole lot different from being gay, and the same legal principles should not apply.

    Chase Strangio (whom I privately refer to as Chase Weirdio) does not care about truth. As a trans man, he is encouraging the ACLU to simply accept transgender ideology in its entirety, despite the fact that it is full of lies and pretenses.

    Let’s take a look at what I call Gender Speak — i.e., calling so-called “nonbinary” trans people “they” and “them”. The ACLU will sue organizations which will not use a nonbinary person’s special pronouns (or which allow their employees not to use them). But since when does any person get to tell other people how they must speak? It seems to me that the ACLU should be on the other side of this issue. Now, you can make the point that calling a woman “he” and “him” would be a form of discrimination egregious enough to warrant a law suit, but people who don’t want to call nonbinary individuals “they” and “them” are on firmer legal ground because an individual is a single person, so plural pronouns are inappropriate.

    If I remember correctly, Chase Weirdio wants it to be considered a slur to say that a trans woman is a “biological male”, but that is the scientific truth. So, if the ACLU takes Weirdio’s lead, they could end up suing people for speaking the truth!

    1. I am putting you under moderation for two reasons: your comment is too long (we don’t want rambling essays, but comments; please read the Roolz), and for use of the term “Chase Wierdo” which is rude and doesn’t add anything to your argument.
      Please read the “Roolz” on the sidebar before you post again, make sure your posts are not long essays like the above, and above all, be civil to other people, even if you don’t like them.

  11. My apology for the Weirdio comment, and for being overly verbose. The depths inherent in the trans issue are truly vast. Never before has a minority come along which is dissatisfied with its natural state and seeks acceptance from society, not for what it is, but for what it wants to be.

    You can remedy my previous comment by deleting “(whom I privately refer to as Chase Weirdio)” in the fourth paragraph, and changing “Weirdio” to “Strangio” in the final paragraph. I do appreciate your tolerance.

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