By William Fisher
OK, OK. I know. It’s time for my annual good news column.
It’s a deal I made with a friend to make up for all the depressing news stories I had to write this year.
This was no easy task. Aside from the end of the Bush era, and the election of Barack Obama, there wasn’t all that much good news to be had. But perseverance paid off: My discovery of a fitting subject came during a session of the U.S. Senate on C-SPAN, that exciting channel sponsored by the cable industry.
Amidst the hollow echo of a totally empty Senate chamber (did you know the C-SPAN cameras are only allowed to focus on whoever is speaking, and never allowed to pan the whole chamber, full of empty seats?) stood a Republican senator, voice quivering, arms flailing, face reddening, railing against our National Security Enemy Number One, the American Civil Liberties Union.
Now, what was this legislative grandstander getting so apoplectic about? The ACLU’s activities in coordinating defense teams for detainees at Guantanamo.
But why he should have been surprised – or acting surprised – is a mystery. The ACLU has been doing this kind of unpopular stuff for almost a century.
Let’s go all the way back to World War I. Then, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the ACLU’s predecessor, defended the First Amendment rights of antiwar dissidents in the face of massive government repression. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!) banned anti-war literature from the mails and prosecuted individuals for merely expressing opposition to the war, or criticizing the President. Just like some Third World dictatorship!
People were convicted and sentenced to ten-year prison terms for allegedly interfering with the draft, even though they had said nothing about the draft itself.
These prosecutions were initially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. But later the Court affirmed the principle that the First Amendment protects the right to criticize the government – even during wartime.
A generation later, the ACLU was the only national organization to challenge the government's World War Two evacuation and internment of the Japanese-Americans while organizations of every political stripe, fearful of alienating the government, pretended not to notice.
Today all of us except the truly delusional acknowledge that this was one of the darkest chapters in American civil rights history.
Then, just a few years after the war, in 1949, an ex-Catholic priest named Arthur Terminiello delivered a racist and anti-Semitic speech to the Christian Veterans of America. The Chicago Police Department was present, but was unable to completely maintain order. Terminiello was charged with violating Chicago's breach of peace ordinance and fined a hundred dollars.
Terminiello appealed and the ACLU successfully defended him before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, known as Terminiello v. Chicago, established the legal precedent for the ACLU's successful defense of the civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and '70s.
Many other unsavory characters have been defended by the ACLU. Like the Neo-Nazis who claimed the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1979. At the time, the ACLU’s Executive Director was Aryeh Neier, whose relatives had died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II. Neier said: "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened."
I wish the folks we send to Congress to represent us knew more American history – or chose to remember it. But, after ACORN, there is arguably no easier target for a rabble-rousing, demagogic lawmaker than the ACLU.
And these icons of good governance lose no opportunity to go the floor of the House and Senate to inveigh against it.
But they might be well advised to remember that the ACLU is an outfit to which they might one day find themselves having to reach out to defend their First Amendment rights to speak their mind – including the right to say stupid things.