A few months after her last visit to Yale, Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discovered that the very rights her organization defends — in particular, the right to free press — also put her in the midst of a national controversy.
At a Davenport Master’s Tea on Friday, Strossen gave an overview of the ACLU and its activities, discussed the organization’s standpoints on various issues and explained how an article in the News in January of 2005 caused a national outcry. When Strossen gave a Master’s Tea in Swing Space that year, she was quoted in the News as saying that the ACLU “defended the right for individuals to engage in polygamy.” The quote was picked up by various news sources — including WorldNetDaily.com — and published in a June 2005 newsletter for the American Family Association, an organization that promotes conservative Christian values.
“You really got me in trouble the last time I was here,” Strossen said to an audience of about 50 students and faculty.
Strossen told her audience that the AFA newsletter quoted a Crawford Broadcasting radio talk show host, Paul McGuire, as saying the ACLU seems “to only defend things that tear down the fabric of society.” The comment drew laughs from the audience, and before moving on, Strossen said she wanted all her comments on the record.
Strossen, who is a professor at the New York Law School, began her overview of civil liberties by noting the progress that had been made since her college days — she graduated from Harvard College in 1972 and Harvard Law School in 1975, which she said she attended “only because Yale didn’t accept women back then.” When she was in college, the Supreme Court had not yet recognized that the Constitution applied to gender discrimination and the gay rights movement did not exist, Strossen said.
“There is every basis for optimism because I really see what can be done,” she said. “You see an injustice, and you can do something about it.”
Strossen emphasized the fact that the ACLU is committed to being a nonpartisan organization.
“We neutrally criticize every individual or organization — or praise them,” she said.
The ACLU has recently come under intense scrutiny for its support of Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), who pleaded guilty to soliciting public sex in a bathroom at Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport. The ACLU claims that the sting operation that resulted in Craig’s arrest was unconstitutional. Though Craig has supported a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Strossen said rights are something everyone has a stake in, regardless of partisanship.
Students who attended the Master’s Tea said they found Strossen’s comments provocative.
“I was really impressed by [Strossen’s] emphasis on nonpartisanshi, especially when Larry Craig has had a history of opposing the ACLU,” River Clegg ’11 said.
Julia Wu ’11 said the best moments of Strossen’s talk were when she addressed specific issues.
“The most interesting part was when she talked about the death penalty, because that’s an issue where I’m undecided,” she said.
While the ACLU has had many victories, Strossen said litigation in the federal courts is not a promising avenue for promoting civil liberties. Instead, she said the best way to make a difference is to change the hearts and minds of voters across America. If a case is lost in the Supreme Court, she said, it is a national loss.
“But the ACLU never loses a case,” Strossen said, smiling. “It’s just that sometimes courts make mistakes. And you can quote me on that one.”