Defending the thought we hate

April 13, 1994|By Jack L. Levin

WHEN the American Civil Liberties Union defends the civil liberties of right-wingers, it is criticized from the left as reactionary. When it stands up for the civil liberties of left-wingers, the likes of Rush Limbaugh chide it for bleeding-heart liberalism.

It must be doing something right.

In fact, most ACLU cases involve neither right nor left, but middle-class Americans dealing with complex and sometimes conflicting interpretations of rights. Sometimes the rights of society clash with those of the individual. Sometimes it's a case of the establishment of religion versus its free exercise, sometimes the public's right to know versus a person's right to privacy. These are only a few of the controversies that heat up ACLU board rooms.

The Maryland ACLU was rocked by dissension from the start. Shortly after its founding in 1931, it was confronted with a case that divided its state board from its national board.

A judge ordered radio station WFBR's microphone out of the courtroom where the station was covering a trial. The Maryland ACLU backed the defendant's privacy and right to a fair trial. The national ACLU defended the public's right to know what went on at the trial. As I recall, Maryland won that one.

During the Joseph McCarthy period, when I was state board chairman, the Maryland ACLU board was divided over the case of Bethlehem Steel workers who were fired as communists and had requested their union to represent them in seeking unemployment compensation. They claimed that, as dues-paying members in good standing, they were entitled to union representation. When we filed a brief in the fired workers' ,, behalf, several of our board members quit. (They returned to the fold later.)

A few years ago, a woman employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles displayed on the wall of her office a religious picture depicting entry to heaven through the pearly gates. Her superior ordered her to remove it, claiming it amounted to the establishment of religion in a government building. Her defense was that she was merely asserting her right of free exercise of religion -- which we defended. The heavenly portals were returned to the wall.

But such differences are exceptions, not the rule. All ACLU members agree at all times on one point: that the ACLU has really only one client, the Bill of Rights. Sometimes that client is personified by a good guy, sometimes by a bad one.

Right-wing talk show hosts see the union as a bunch of "bleeding hearts," interested only in defending the liberties of liberals and communists, not those of right-wingers, the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and anti-communists. But they know better.

The ACLU always has adhered to the standard our principal founder, Roger Baldwin, enunciated many years ago: "The test of loyalty of the ACLU to its principles lies in the impartiality with which they are applied -- there can be no favorites in defense of rights for all. This is a hard test to impose against natural sympathies and prejudices; it is even harder to defend the 'thought we hate.' "

That is why the ACLU has defended the Nazis and similar groups in many over-publicized and over-politicized cases. The Ku Klux Klan's right to assemble and parade has been defended at least a dozen times. The free-speech rights of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his followers were protected by the ACLU in at least five cases, the John Birch Society in an-other five, the National States Rights Party, the National Renaissance Party and white supremacists' interests in a few more.

In Maryland there have been national landmarks like the Madalyn Murray O'Hare case of 1963, which outlawed teacher-led school prayer and, in the same year, the Supreme Court's unanimous decision that the accused has the right to be represented by an attorney. That victory was won by the late Fred E. Weisgal, who was head of the Maryland ACLU legal panel, at that time virtually a one-man operation.

Today, over 200 volunteer lawyers are on call; 116 of them handled cases in 1992. The cases had one thing in common -- defense of the Bill of Rights:

The rights of a cook who was fired because he refused to undergo an AIDS test . . .

The rights of residents in a rehabilitation hospital who were routinely abused, neglected, injured and unnecessarily restrained . . .

The rights of the disabled inmates of a Hagerstown correctional institution who were denied equal access to various programs . . .

Those of Talbot County road workers who were racially segregated and given less desirable work assignments than white co-workers . . .

Those of black applicants denied membership in a Western Maryland club . . .

Those of an African-American school superintendent on the Eastern Shore who was dismissed for no apparent cause . . .

Those of politically powerless minority communities where environmental wastes were being dumped . . .

Those of women who were denied equal access to membership in organizations and employment in various capacities, including jury duty.

If the ACLU is unpopular with those who resent and resist the restraints imposed by the Bill of Rights, that is understandable. They cannot forgive us for actually practicing what they fervently believe should be preached exclusively.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman and past chairman of the ACLU of Maryland.

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