A Rebellion Grows Within the ACLU After ‘Earthquake’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union who have become disillusioned with the group’s governance are gathering the support of former officials, donors, and other ACLU members to challenge the organization’s leadership, according to people involved in the discussions.

The target of the nascent campaign is the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony Romero, 40, who took over day-to-day operation of the group in 2001.

One troubling sign for Mr. Romero is the emergence in the opposition camp of his predecessor, Ira Glasser. Since his retirement in 2001 after 23 years at the helm of the ACLU, Mr. Glasser has had little involvement in the civil liberties group’s affairs.

However, he appeared at a board meeting earlier this month where proposals to limit speech by board members were debated. Mr. Glasser, 68, did not address the session, but told associates he hoped his presence would be interpreted as a sign of his distress.

Mr. Glasser declined to be interviewed for this story. However, a longtime ACLU donor, Alan Kahn, said Mr. Romero’s actions over the past five years have caused him to lose Mr. Glasser’s confidence.

“Apparently, he gave a strong recommendation to the hiring of Romero. He sees this was a poor recommendation and has now realized he has no choice but to take some action,” Mr. Kahn said in an interview. “I have heard it said to me that he feels that he has to atone for what he’s done and now is maybe willing to become activist.”

A person familiar with Mr. Glasser’s thinking said although Mr. Glasser is opposed to the proposed policies restricting board members’ speech, he has not made any decision about whether to take any action or play any further role.

One catalyst for the reform drive was the report from an ACLU committee urging constraints on speech by board members at odds with the organization. One provision said, “A director may publicly disagree with an ACLU policy position, but may not criticize the ACLU board and staff.”

Another said board members “should refrain from publicly highlighting” any disagreement with the organization’s policies, in part because public dissent could hurt the ACLU’s “public support and fund-raising.”

Mr. Kahn, a former investment company manager from Forest Hills, said what moved him to action was the ACLU’s decision to endorse a bill that would regulate advertising by counseling centers operated by groups that oppose legalized abortion.

“That got me because I’m a firm believer in content-neutral defense of free speech. The fact that the ACLU would abandon that position was an earthquake,” Mr. Kahn said. “The organization has lost its way.”

After The New York Sun reported on the ACLU’s endorsement in March, the group withdrew its press release about the bill. However, the ACLU has not made a public statement clarifying its views on the subject.

The formation of the dissident group, tentatively called the Committee to Save the ACLU, is in its earliest stages.

The Sun has learned that last Monday, a day after the ACLU meeting concluded, a Virginia man, Todd Mercer, registered savetheaclu.com and related Internet domains. The sites are not yet active.

Mr. Mercer, who is connected with a Virginia-based graphic design firm, did not reply to phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment for this article.

Mr. Kahn said he was unaware of the registrations. However, one individual, who asked not to be named but has been involved in discussions about ousting the ACLU leadership, said attempts to establish an online presence were under way.

In an interview, the ACLU’s executive director, Mr. Romero, portrayed the insurrection as unwarranted and said he knew nothing about the effort beyond a hint of it he noticed in a recent news story.

“I think the ACLU is in great shape,” Mr. Romero told the Sun. “We’re focused on all the right issues. Membership is growing. The resources are there. And we’re picking the right battles.”

Mr. Romero said he did not agree with the proposals to stem dissent by members of the organization’s board and said so clearly at the meeting held on June 17 and 18. “I think it would be a big mistake to enact a rule or policy that would limit board members’ right to free speech. I think justifying that would be very difficult to do internally, and enacting any such rule would come back to haunt us in our external advocacy,” he said.

The ACLU official also described as “untenable” the suggestion that public criticism of the group’s policies was acceptable but complaints about the organization’s staff was not. “It’s too murky,” Mr. Romero said. “If we allowed the government to police that line, it would lead to problems.”

After being critically received by some board members at this month’s meeting, the proposals were returned to the committee for further work.

Mr. Romero said the controversy was unjustified because the proposed guidelines had no chance of passing. “The possibility of a rule or a policy muzzling board members’ free speech rights has a snowball’s chance in hell in the ACLU,” he said.

A critic who is leaving the board to day after clashing for several years with Mr. Romero, Wendy Kaminer, took issue with the notion that it was impossible that the speech-limiting proposals could have passed. “If it’s so inconceivable, why did nine out of 10 committee members endorse it?” she asked.

Critics have faulted Mr. Romero for waiting until this month to denounce the proposals, which were circulated in January. He said he had not looked at them closely until recently and would have been reluctant to intervene before they were formally presented.

“If I had criticized it six months ago and tried to muzzle the baby before it was born, some would have criticized me for trying to subvert the board process,” he said.

The proposals regarding board members’ speech led to an outpouring of concern from supporters of the organization, including a prominent Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. He confirmed to the Sun that he wrote a letter expressing disagreement with the plan, as well as a published quote in which Mr. Romero sought to explain the conflicting interests at stake by saying, “Take hate speech,” Mr. Romero told the New York Times last month. “While believing in free speech, we do not believe in or condone speech that attacks minorities.”

“It leaves the impression the ACLU would not protect people’s right to engage in hate speech,” Mr. Frank said. “You don’t really believe in the First Amendment unless you defend the right of an outrageous person who said something despicable.”

Mr. Frank said Mr. Romero visited him on Capitol Hill last week to say the ACLU still defends hate speech and that he was “not fully quoted” by the Times.

In an interview, an ACLU board member and former Army intelligence officer, Michael Pheneger of Tampa, Fla., fired what may be the first shot across the bow of the ACLU’s former director, Mr. Glasser.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a perfect director. I think Ira gets more perfect as time goes by,” Mr. Pheneger said sarcastically, “but I can remember getting quite upset by some of the things he did.”

TOMORROW: A profile of Anthony Romero, the leader at the center of the storm.

The New York Sun

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