Speech Rules Mar ACLU's Ideals

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

The ACLU, America's once proud and stalwart defender of free speech and a free press, is turning on its own board members and staff who differ publicly with the leadership's party line.

In an astonishing piece of hypocrisy and reversal of roles, an ACLU National Board committee offers "best practices" guidelines that board members may not speak individually or otherwise to the press in any way that casts a bad light on the ACLU, its board or staff. The concern is, according to Anthony Romero, the group's executive director, that the airing of dissent hurts fundraising.

This proposed break (to be discussed at its meeting next month) with the ACLU's "unity without uniformity" credo sinks the ACLU, a membership organization, to the lowest rung of Orwellian behavior: It is mimicking the very censorial tactics of the government that it fights and exposes. It is ironic that the ACLU is decrying and seeking to hunt out and discipline "leakers," directors who they assail as "enemies within."


It doesn't matter to Romero and his enablers on the ACLU's board that the "leaks" are true or that the information discussed with reporters about errant ACLU policies and its new rules are not confidential at all.

To the ACLU leadership, if the adopted policy or proposal is merely discussed by a board member outside the boardroom, without the staff's permission, that board member is disloyal.

Indeed, those directors who have discussed policy disputes with the media have been assailed by some of their colleagues as "whistle punks."

The intolerance for differences of opinion and the disapproval for the "airing of dirty laundry" in the new ACLU are breathtaking. Here are but a few examples:

Directors who are phoned by the press must refer the reporters to the ACLU's press office, which prepares "talking points" and also chooses which board members on either side of a controversial issue may speak to the media;

A director may not ask staff for information; such questions must first be put to the executive committee, which then decides whether the question merits an answer;

Papers for board meetings arrive late or are distributed at the meeting, and "sensitive" (but not confidential) documents may be collected; the meetings themselves are routinely closed and tapes of sessions restricted or as some executive committee members propose, to be destroyed;

Romero announced a policy of monitoring employee emails,

Romero tried to impose on all employees an official secrets policy that swept broadly far beyond the ordinary duty of care for genuinely confidential data;

The board's president -- Romero's ally -- covers for Romero's bizarre anti-civil libertarian tangents.

When Romero was discovered to have signed up the ACLU for Combined Federal Campaign funding on the condition that the ACLU check its employees against a governmental blacklist, the board president explained that Romero's printing of the blacklists but not checking employees against them was "clever" -- clever, not disingenuous. The board's executive committee did not see this sign-up as a betrayal of the ACLU's traditional opposition to blacklisting; they merely rationalized it as a means to an end, getting more money for civil liberties defense.

Romero recently at a meeting lambasted directors for talking to the press and chastised one member of the board for having a disapproving look on her face. And Romero then claimed that he had dossiers on board members and wanted directors' help in ousting his board critics. This was eerily reminiscent of President Nixon's enemies list.


I was one of Romero's "public enemies," a dissenter who refused to follow his tyrannical rules. As a result, after 24 years of board service, including years as an ACLU vice president, and following an aborted effort to impeach me, I was ousted by a vote. Now, the ACLU board is preparing and urged to give the leadership "cause" for the removal of other troublesome, noncompliant directors.

Dissent is a sin in the new ACLU. The powers that be there will not only ostracize, and assail with calumny dissidents, they seem intent on putting in place "guidelines" that will cause dissidents' ouster from the board.

This stopping of dissent by any means necessary is inconsistent for an organization that purports to advocate free speech and the protection of dissenters and whistleblowers. Nevertheless, the ACLU board has shown little regard to practice itself what it preaches to others.

The ACLU thinks it has to squelch dissent and squash its critics in order to mount an effective external war on civil liberties violations by the government.

They just don't get it: the government will see through the ACLU's looking glass and discover that its chief antagonist on civil liberties has no clothes and no credibility.