ACLU prez at the Law School

While we don’t quite get the personal touch that I often experienced at the Berkman, we still get a lot of great speakers and such passing through Columbia and the other New York area law schools. Today the president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, swung through for a brief lunch talk. I took sort of lousy notes, but a couple things jumped out at me. Note that there is liberal paraphrasing below, so please don’t take anything here as having come straight from her mouth.

  • She complimented the Federalist Society, an activist conservative constitutional group, for raising the profile of constitutional law issues, even though she disagrees with many of their positions. She argues that they should be an inspiration to anyone entering law school, and posits that they are an example of the system at work- that anyone can take a legal issue, make it their own, and if it has substance, make it relevant. I think a cynic could easily spin this as ‘the system is great! single-issue lobbyists can make an impact!’, but it was refreshing to hear someone who has been so often stifled still express great optimism that individual effort can make an impact.
  • She mentioned that we’re in a time of great interest for constitutional law scholars- Laurence Tribe, Harvard’s leading constitutional law scholar, actually stopped writing a treatise on constitutional law because he felt that the field had become so unsettled and so constantly changing that to write it now would be a waste of time.
  • They’ve nearly doubled staff and membership since 9/11/2001, which is bittersweet- obviously good that people care, but obviously bad that civil liberties are in such bad shape that they draw this much attention. Says that ideally the ACLU would fade away.
  • Finally, she went into great detail about how the ACLU is working with both sides of the political spectrum right now. She says that this has always been the case, but particularly at this time, given the dominance of the right in Congress, and the growing sympathy of libertarian-leaning Republicans to confront the Big Brother faction of their party, that they have worked often with both sides of the aisle. She had several good examples of this, including their defense of the reprehensible Fred Phelps of, and work with both parties on the Patriot Act. I unfortunately wasn’t able to get in a question before I had to leave, but what I really wanted to know what ‘If you’re so effectively bipartisan, why does one party still use ‘card carrying ACLU member’ as an epithet? Is it a failure of PR and of effective communication with one wing of the electorate? Or is the failure somewhere else?’ This seems like a critical problem for the ACLU’s effectiveness- if they weren’t so immediately and effectively demonized by so many people, often without factual basis, it seems like they might be likely to get a lot more done.

Anyway, interesting talk. I don’t always agree with their decisions of who to defend, but I’m glad they are there.