Over the past several years, there has been increasing controversy within the ACLU over alleged breaches of principle and cover-ups by Anthony Romero,the Executive Director. There have also been charges by a number of Board members that the Board, and particularly its leadership, has failed to confront its problem and has instead focused its fury on the critics instead of the merits of the criticism.
This has resulted in nearly 10 dissenters leaving or being voted off the Board,and this past June a Board committee actually proposed, by a 9-1 vote,to adopt proposals that would have barred Board members from publicly criticizing the Board or staff. Although the Board rejected two motions to strike these proposals, not even permitting them to be brought to a vote, the proposals were abruptly withdrawn after a few weeks of bad publicity and donor complaints. Late this summer, yet another dissenting Board member,John Brittain, was voted off the Board.
On Sept. 25, close to three dozen longtime ACLU loyalists called for a change in the current leadership of the ACLU. There is now a website called savetheaclu.org where this movement can be followed and joined,and where documents providing more details may be found.
As the long-time former Executive Director of the ACLU, and initially a strong supporter of Anthony Romero, Ira Glasser has, to the surprise of some, decided to join this effort and has written a statement to say why. It appears below.
This initiative was the idea of a longtime ACLU member whom I did not know. The idea appealed to a growing number of lifelong ACLU loyalists, whose names appear on the front page of this website and who share the concerns expressed in the statement they have signed. When I was asked to join- as the former ACLU Executive Director for nearly a quarter-century- I had some reluctance to do so, because when I retired in 2001 I was firmly convinced that I should have no further role in the governance of the organization.
But extraordinary events require extraordinary responses. I have decided to join this effort because I share the concerns expressed in the joint statement. I do so with some sadness, of course, but no ambivalence. I believe the soul of the organization and the integrity of its longterm mission is at stake, and that is no small matter. Because of my former position, however, there are several things to be said in addition to the concerns expressed in the general statement.
First, although there sometimes can be tensions between a predecessor and his successor, that was not the case here. There was no prior enmity; to the contrary, and despite my current concerns, I was Anthony Romero's biggest booster and supporter. I first suggested to him that he become a candidate, and helped persuade him to do so. During his candidacy, I was unfailingly available to him, and spent many hours responding to his questions and providing counsel as he prepared for his interviews. Although I was not part of the selection committee and did not participate in interviews of the candidates, when he was selected as one of the finalists, I provided a glowing recommendation. And after he got the job, I was available to him for any advice he sought. At an ACLU event marking the first anniversary of his tenure, I publicly expressed my pleasure at his initial achievements and said I was deeply invested in his success. And I was. That was in 2002, before the series of breaches of fundamental ACLU principles that has brought us to where we are today.
Second, I continue to be proud of the work being done all over the country by people on the ground, both in the affiliates and on the national staff. But although much of this work might appear unaffected by the breaches at the top, leadership is important. If the leadership of the ACLU continues to reflect disrespect for core ACLU principles, it ultimately cannot fail to affect program all over the country, as staffs and board members change and come under the influence of the only leadership they have known. Anyone who has studied organizations, either governmental or in the private sector, knows that leadership is critical in shaping the character and mission of an organization over time. That is why the continued good work by staff on the ground all over the country is not a defense against the breaches committed by top leadership.
Third, my concern over those breaches- and the astonishing extent to which they have been tolerated by the ACLU Board- does not mean I do not recognize, and continue to praise, Anthony Romero's achievements. Although he found an organization in excellent financial health when he arrived, he has raised large additional amounts of money and has substantially increased the ACLU's annual income, its assets and its membership. Although some discount those achievements because they believe that any competent executive director could have raised such amounts in the climate of fear over the threats to civil liberties posed by the Bush Administration, I am not among them. As an experienced fundraiser myself, I know that the external political climate is always a major factor in the success of raising funds to support civil liberties work, but I believe Anthony Romero has extracted close to the maximum amount of support from this climate. I am nothing but happy about those achievements because they strengthen the ACLU and its affiliates throughout the country at a time when the ACLU is more necessary than ever.
But for the same reason- because the ACLU is more important than ever now- I grieve over the repeated breaches of fundamental ACLU principles that Anthony has committed. They weaken the ACLU at a time when the ACLU needs to be strengthened. They injure the ACLU's credibility at a time when the ACLU's credibility needs to be beyond any doubt. They undermine the ACLU's reputation for consistency of principle when that reputation is the ACLU's most critical asset. And if these unhappy developments are not remedied, the longterm effectiveness of the ACLU is at profound risk.
Financial growth is a necessary predicate to the ability of the ACLU to carry out its mission; no one knows that better than I. But financial growth is not the ACLU's mission, nor is money its most valuable asset. When the ACLU does not practice what it preaches, when the ACLU markets civil liberties principles externally but fails to live by those principles within the ACLU, it signals a disrespect for and a lack of genuine commitment to those very principles it seeks to establish. And it damages its ability to be taken seriously. Ultimately, a leadership that does not respect its own principles enough to live by them is a leadership that will over time fail to apply those principles externally- especially when doing so seems to interfere with short-term fundraising efforts. This is a triumph of marketing over substance, and over the past three years there is already evidence that it has begun to erode the ACLU's commitment to its historic mission.
Finally, I grieve over the loss of the ACLU's candor and its commitment to honesty and its growing intolerance for dissent and free speech within its own ranks. Such intolerance cannot be contained; it reflects an attitude, which once institutionalized, will change- perhaps has already begun to change- the instincts and reflexes that drive the ACLU's mission.
In case after case during the past three years, Anthony Romero has breached a core ACLU principle in secret, without any prior consultation with, much less approval by, the governing bodies- the Board or Executive Committee- of the ACLU. These breaches have subsequently been disclosed, either inadvertently or because of internal whistleblowers, many months after they have occurred. When they have been disclosed, Anthony Romero has defended what he did vigorously and, then, when his defense crumbled and became untenable, offered explanations that were deeply misleading, half-true and in some cases flatly untrue. Breaches of principle have been followed by dishonesty.
The leadership of the Board of Directors has known all this, and has chosen to tolerate it, perhaps in the hope that if they did, it would stop. The opposite has been the case. Their tolerance for these breaches and the dishonesty that followed has led to more of the same. And they have focused their anger not on the source of the problem but on those who pointed it out. Critics have been demonized and purged from the Board. Ad hominem attacks have replaced responses on the merits. Facts have been denied but not confronted or rebutted with evidence. The intolerance for dissent- in of all places within the ACLU!!- has led to the resignations of a number of longterm, highly respected Board members. Even worse, it has led to organizing the electoral defeat of dissident Board members and also to the recent astonishing proposals to bar Board members from publicly criticizing the ACLU staff or board. That these proposals were abruptly withdrawn in response to bad publicity and donor complaints is of small comfort. Indeed, over the past few years, the pattern has been to reverse or back away from breaches of principle only when their belated disclosure has generated widespread exposure and condemnation. This is no way to run an organization based on principle.
This statement is not the place to describe in detail the way in which this pattern has repeatedly been reflected in a growing number of incidents where core principles of the ACLU have been breached. But those details are available to anyone interested.
What is important now is that this pattern be arrested and reversed before it is too late. Once that might have been possible without a change in leadership, if the Board had acted appropriately. Now it has gone too far, become too pervasive, and begun to erode the governing integrity of the ACLU. I join this effort with sadness, but in the firm belief that the core mission of the ACLU is at stake. I remain confident that those who have come forward to express their concerns reflect the best in the ACLU, and that there remains an audience willing to hear them and act.
Ira Glasser was the Executive Director of the ACLU from 1978-2001.