ACLU rises on conservative tide

Rights: The Bush administration's implementation of anti-terrorism measures has led many concerned citizens to join the civil liberties group.

February 08, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Conservatives are in power again. They control the White House, both houses of Congress and many state houses across the country. And one of their most popular targets, the American Civil Liberties Union, has never been more popular.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 82-year-old nonprofit organization has seen its ranks of members and supporters increase by 15 percent, to an all-time high of almost 380,000.

Many newcomers signed up because they're concerned about the Bush administration's anti-terrorism measures, which allow closed military trials, expanded profiling of immigrants and government monitoring of everyday electronic transactions.

The ACLU recently received the largest single donation in its history - an $8 million gift from Cleveland businessman Peter Lewis.

The group is also attracting unlikely allies from the libertarian right who share the same concerns over privacy rights. They include retired House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. Once among the most conservative voices in Congress, they signed on as consultants to the ACLU last month.

"People tend to join at a time when they really see a threat," said Emily Whitfield, a national ACLU spokeswoman. "I think times of war are always galvanizing, because that's a time when the government makes the case that civil liberties can be sacrificed."

The ACLU was founded after World War I as a nonpartisan group dedicated to preserving the freedoms set forth in the Bill of Rights. Its first clients were jailed anti-war activists.

Since then, the ACLU has found itself defending both the extreme right and left: Communists and neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and minorities seeking the right to vote.

Battling Ehrlich

Here in Maryland, the organization is butting heads with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. about the group's influence on a board overseeing a racial profiling settlement in which the ACLU represented minority motorists against the Maryland State Police.

In the polarizing world of American politics during the 1980s, conservatives frequently and loudly used "ACLU" as a four-letter word for out-of-step liberalism.

George Bush, the current president's father, used the ACLU to lash out at opponent Michael S. Dukakis during their 1988 battle for the presidency, summing up Dukakis' social positions with the group's abbreviation.

Dukakis lost the election, but the ACLU won 60,000 new members that year - many of them in reaction to Bush's hectoring.

On the other hand, membership has waned when politicians perceived as friendly to the group's cause take office, Whitfield said.

"When Clinton took office, our membership went down a little bit," she said. "People thought, `Here's a Democrat and a liberal; he's going to take care of civil liberties.'"

That wasn't necessarily the case, Whitfield noted, as the Clinton administration increased the use of telephone tapping and other forms of electronic surveillance.

These days, the ACLU is addressing the new set of privacy fears with a national "Safe and Free" advertising campaign. It opposes profiling by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as a new Defense Department data-mining program called Total Information Awareness. Critics say that program will open the everyday movements and electronic transactions of ordinary citizens to extraordinary government intrusion.

The ACLU's campaign even mocks the phrase that the elder Bush used to deride Dukakis' involvement in the group: "Become a card-carrying member of the ACLU," its Web site beckons.

The group recently hired four organizers to help cities and towns pass resolutions saying they won't cooperate with anti-terrorism measures that they consider too intrusive. Such resolutions have passed in 29 communities, from San Francisco to Amherst, Mass.

Md. chapter grows

About 2,100 people have joined the Maryland chapter of the group since the terrorist attacks - an increase of nearly a third.

Mikhel Kushner, 29, director of the Women's Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of them.

Although her family has had a long history of involvement with the group -her father, a doctor, became a member at a young age - Kushner said she wasn't moved to join until the government action that followed the terrorist attacks.

"Enough angst about what's going on built up," Kushner said. "I just get the sense there is a lot going on that is being couched as necessary action in this war against terrorism, but is just whittling away the freedoms that are precious in this country."

Since she joined two months ago, Kushner said, "The ACLU has helped me articulate on some levels, when there is something going on that I'm concerned about, why I'm concerned about it. ... It's just nice to know that voice is there for me."

Interest on campuses

Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter, said she has been struck by the recent interest of young people; the group's membership has typically been older.

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