After an outcry from free speech advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union is reconsidering its endorsement of proposed legislation calling for federal regulation of advertising by anti-abortion counseling centers.
The bill, introduced last month by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat of New York, would have instructed the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules aimed at precluding deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers, which are often set up near abortion clinics and sometimes advertise in phone directories under headings like "abortion" and "clinics."
The director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, Caroline Fredrickson, spoke at a press conference Ms. Maloney held on March 30 to unveil the bill. In addition, the ACLU issued a press release the same day urging lawmakers to support the legislation and applauding the congresswoman for her proposal.
However, in recent days, the press release and all mention of the bill have disappeared from the ACLU Web site. Links that previously led to the release now produce an error message.
A spokeswoman for the ACLU, Emily Whitfield, confirmed that the organization has withdrawn its earlier statement, pending an internal review.
"We did pull it down, as you observed, because we realized it really was not fully vetted within the ACLU, and so we're doing that now," Ms. Whitfield said.
Several members of the organization's board said yesterday that the group's endorsement of the legislation prompted considerable discussion and some sharp dissent. A New York Sun article in which First Amendment experts and civil libertarians expressed concern about the bill and the ACLU's stance was circulated to the entire board, insiders said.
"I find it quite appalling that the ACLU is actively supporting this," one board member, Wendy Kaminer, said in an interview. "I think this is precisely the kind of legislation we should be opposing, not supporting."
The bill would prevent any person from advertising "with the intent to deceptively create the impression that such person is a provider of abortion services if such person does not provide abortion services." The term "abortion services" is defined to include surgical and drug-induced abortions, as well as referrals for abortions.
"I am troubled by the assumption in the legislation that abortion services, as a matter of linguistics and a matter of law, cannot include discussing with a woman why she shouldn't have an abortion," said Ms. Kaminer, a Boston attorney and author who described herself as "very strongly pro-choice."
"I don't believe the pro-choice movement has the copyright on the term 'abortion services.' That seems to me a very clear example of government being the language police," she said.
Another ACLU board member, John Brittain, said he regretted the decision to endorse the bill. "We shouldn't have supported this kind of legislation," he said.
Mr. Brittain said that one board member warned that a ban on deceptive advertising outside the realm of commerce could even affect groups such as Jews for Jesus, which seem Jewish at first glance but are actually Christian. "I could see a free speech principle even in the utmost deception," the lawyer said.
Mr. Brittain, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, said he suspects the endorsement was the product of a desire to make common cause with liberal groups in the capital. "In the D.C. policy world, organizations sometimes elevate their collaborative, coordinational support for each other in public policy over some principles that may be core to their individual institutions," he said.
Ms. Fredrickson, the ACLU's point person on the legislation, became the civil liberties group's top lobbyist in July, after leaving a job as general counsel and legal director for an abortion rights advocacy organization, NARAL Pro-Choice America. That group was among several that joined the ACLU in endorsing Ms. Maloney's bill.
Ms. Fredrickson, who did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, previously served as chief of staff to Senator Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat.
Several board members said attorneys who serve as general counsel to the board were reviewing the legislation to determine whether the bill was constitutional and whether it was in accord with ACLU's principles and policies.
Ms.Whitfield declined to discuss the review process or to say at what level the endorsement of the bill was approved. She said the group's executive director, Anthony Romero, was not available for an interview yesterday.
A dissident voted off the ACLU board last year, Michael Meyers of New York, said he viewed the episode as another indication that the group has strayed from its traditional free-speech roots and has embraced "identity politics."
"It's the new ACLU that's the problem," he said.
A spokesman for Ms. Maloney said she was traveling in New York yesterday and unavailable for comment. Her bill has 16 co-sponsors in the House, including 3 New York democrats, Reps. Maurice Hinchey, Gary Ackerman and Joseph Crowley.