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ACLU Angst


Many of us in Humboldt County love the independence we have in our tiny towns far from the big city, but we also want to be a part of what's happening out in the world. We want it both ways.

Maybe that's at the heart of a rift currently taking place between the folks at the American Civil Liberties Union down in San Francisco and over in Washington, D.C., and the members of our own chapter in Eureka.

The Redwood Chapter has been around since 1990, when local attorney Christina Allbright came to town. She'd been a member since her senior year of high school and was disappointed to find herself in a place that didn't have an ACLU branch. So she helped set one up. The Redwood Chapter is one of 19 offshoots of the Northern California regional affiliate in San Francisco.

Here's my disclosure before I continue: Last year, the Redwood Chapter gave me a nice award. They called me a "patriot" for speaking up on issues of free speech and assembly. I accepted the award, even though the "patriot" part made me feel a little uncomfortable. I'm one of those people who imagine there are no borders. I'm not a member of the ACLU, however, mostly because as a journalist I tend not to join organizations.

But let's get back to the ACLU and speaking up for free speech.

The national organization told members of the Redwood Chapter, which represents Humboldt, Del Norte, northern Mendocino and western Trinity counties, that they should keep their traps shut. They can no longer take stands on issues as the Redwood Chapter of the ACLU without first going through public relations people in San Francisco. It is part of a larger restructuring, which also mandates other things. The local chapter can't run its own elections for its board any more. A slate of candidates has to first be cleared with the national group. At its annual meeting, which will take place Jan. 29 at the Unitarian Fellowship in Bayside at 6 p.m., members will no longer be able to make nominations from the floor, as they have in the past. The national organization also took control of both the content of the chapter's mailings and its distribution list. It's all a bit heavy handed, Allbright told me.

This infuriates the local membership, which wants to be able to take stands on local issues. It has opposed prayers at city council meetings in Eureka and advocated for local police to wear body cameras.

If you aren't familiar with the ACLU, here is the motto you can find on its main website: "Because freedom can't protect itself." The constitutional rights group got Clarence Darrow to represent teacher John Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial" case in 1925, it fought the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and it helped bring Brown v. The Board of Education to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

The clamping down seems to be a classic example of good intentions that result in censorship. It may have to do with the ACLU's tricky public relations problems. People feel strongly about the organization. Back when the first George Bush ran for president against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush accused his opponent of being a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," equating membership in a group that fights for free speech and free assembly with Communism. Since then, having ACLU on the side of any given issue could attract support or drive people away, depending on whether you think it is a great protector of your rights or a Commie-Pinko organization. Knowing this, the ACLU has to be careful of what issues it publicly supports. It doesn't want to cost a ballot proposition votes because of public misunderstanding about its role. Sometimes, it might strategically decide to take a backseat on issues.

The annual meeting on Jan. 29 should be interesting. There's going to be someone from the national board, and Abdi Soltani, the executive director of the San Francisco affiliate, is scheduled to speak.  

You could see why the ACLU would want to reign in its little chapters. Hundreds of little voices all shouting different things isn't nearly as powerful as one clear voice that speaks for hundreds or thousands. Organizations that fight for democracy aren't themselves democratic.

But this rift is so interesting because it seems to go against the thing I've always admired most about the ACLU. It's not there to protect the majority; it is there to remind us that for a democracy to work, you have to protect all the minority voices. Why do so many people hate the ACLU? Because they remember how the group took a stand back in 1978 to defend the right of a group of Nazi-lovers to march through Skokie, Illinois. If you believe in free speech and free assembly the way I do, you have to be willing to hear speech you detest and be willing to abide assemblies of people you fear. Free speech is messy and sometimes scary.

The question is, when the group trying to silence you is the ACLU, where do you turn?

—– Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She wants to give a shout-out to a group of students practicing their right to free speech and assembly by occupying HSU's Native American Forum to protest the firing of Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman. The sit-in has disrupted classes that take place in the building. Free speech and assembly is disruptive. And that's a class lesson we all need to revisit from time to time.

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