By Jeremy Spitz
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long been a proponent of free speech, fighting passionately, and often controversially, for the preservation of first amendment rights.
But several prominent former members and leaders of the organizations have formed a protest group to speak out against what they see as a grave abandonment of the group’s core principles.
The dissenting group, which does not currently have a name, opposes many of the decisions made by the ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. The group also alleges that the national leadership, specifically Romero and ACLU President Nadine Strossen, have actively tried to stifle dissent within national board.
"We’ve called for a change in leadership," a spokesperson from the dissenting group’s website told City on a Hill Press (CHP) in an e-mail.
"Some of us would be gratified by responsible board oversight, which some of us think would probably result in a change of leadership."
The dissenters’ website, http://www.savetheaclu.org, highlights a series of grievances about ACLU leadership over the past three years, including its "approval of grant agreements that restrict speech and associational rights; efforts by management to impose gag rules on staff and to subject staff to email surveillance; a proposal to bar ACLU board members from publicly criticizing the ACLU; and informal campaigns to purge the ACLU of its internal critics."
John Thompson, Co-Chair of the Santa Cruz County ACLU was "very concerned," when he heard about the allegations.
"It seems so antithetical to what the ACLU stands for," Thompson said.
The website has 511 listed supporters including Ira Glasser, the former executive director, and David Goldberger, chief counsel in one of the ACLU’s most radical free speech cases, defending the rights of Neo-Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood.
Santa Cruz City Councilman Mike Rotkin, who serves on the Santa Cruz chapter’s board of directors, addressed the challenge of unifying a large organization
"That’s always a difficult dilemma for any organization, to try and speak with a single voice," Rotkin said.
Co-Chair Thompson said that the ACLU board’s attempts to unify its voice are having the opposite effect.
"[A dissident group] won’t present a unified or dignified and strong public image," Thompson said.
Tension between Romero and the national board has been brewing since 2004 when controversy over anti-terror provisions in grant agreements and a data mining scandal prompted board members Wendy Kaminer and Michael Myers to speak out against Romero’s direction.
Myers was voted off the board last year and Kaminer declined to run for re-election in June.
In September, another critic of the organization’s leaders, John Brittain, was voted out as well.
The dissenters see these events as a purging of the board.
"The current board and the executive director have made a couple of mistakes," Councilman Rotkin said. But Rotkin stressed that there were more important issues to deal with.
"I think the dissenting group is over-blowing the problem," Rotkin said. Rotkin noted that the ACLU has greatly increased its membership and is taking on many important cases. "I think the ACLU has been doing quite well on civil liberties and other issues."
However, Mary Lunetta, a fourth-year community studies and legal studies major, Santa Cruz ACLU board member and intern at the ACLU of Northern California, believes the dissenters have genuine concerns, which should be taken into account.
"Ignoring the situation would be bad," Lunetta said. "I think the organization needs to confront these problems."