An overflowing crowd of more than 60 students and community members crammed into the Swing Space common room Tuesday to hear Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the ACLU’s agenda on issues ranging from gay marriage rights to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”

Strossen, also a professor at New York Law School, discussed her personal experiences in civil liberties law at a master’s tea sponsored by Davenport and Calhoun colleges Tuesday afternoon.

“My heroes and heroines are our clients,” Strossen said. “You get people who have not been schooled in civil liberties who grew up in hostile communities and have the instinct — and I do think it’s an instinct — and the courage to do such things.”

In response to a student’s question about gay marriage, bigamy and polygamy in certain communities, Strossen said the ACLU is actively fighting to defend freedom of choice in marriage and partnerships.

“We have defended the right for individuals to engage in polygamy,” Strossen said. “We defend the freedom of choice for mature, consenting individuals.”

The ACLU strives to be the “nation’s guardian of liberty” and seeks to conserve the rights and liberties in the Constitution by lobbying legislators and making the public aware of threats to civil rights, she said.

“What is unique about the ACLU is that we set as our mission what should be the mission of the government, and that is to defend all fundamental rights of all people,” Strossen said. “Other organizations will focus on rights of particular groups.”

The group’s current body of members and supporters numbers more than 400,000 and Strossen said she has seen membership increase in recent years.

“There has been a culture that has been created in which people support civil liberties,” Strossen said. “They demand them.”

Strossen is the first woman to head the civil liberties organization since it was founded in 1920. After graduating from Harvard College in 1972 and Harvard Law School in 1975, Strossen authored several books and articles on civil liberties.

“[Strossen has] amazing courage and confidence in articulating a civil rights agenda,” New York Law School professor Tanina Rostain said, introducing her colleague at the tea. “Nadine has this amazing capacity to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

After the talk finished, a large group of students waited to ask Strossen more questions about her work.

“Definitely worth braving the cold for,” Charlie Katz ’08 said.

Some students said their political activism is what drew them to the talk.

“She did a really good job of making us more optimistic,” said Ali Frick ’07, who said she is interested in civil liberties and constitutional law. “She wasn’t even allowed to apply to Yale [in the 1960s], so that shows how far women’s rights have come since then.”

Many members of Yale’s chapter of the ACLU also attended the talk and were excited to meet Strossen in person.

“Seeing that I get to be the voice of Yale ACLU, I wanted to see what the real ACLU had to say,” said Nick Seaver ’07, the president of the Yale ACLU.