Permanent Values

Anthony Romero, the American Civil Liberties Union's high-energy director, took the helm of the organization in September 2001, one week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He is widely credited with re-energizing the ACLU, increasing membership and visibility and with keeping an assertive focus on the organization's defense of civil liberties.

At 38, Romero, the ACLU's first Latino and openly gay director, is a fitting symbol of the organization's new energy. He speaks out about everything from gay marriage to the rights of Guantanamo detainees and at same time organizes musical concerts and parties with the air of an experienced host. Most of all, whether introducing Gov. Howard Dean or speaking at a concert, he actually seems to be enjoying himself. Romero, along with President Nadine Strossen, as much by their actions as by their words, have tried to make it clear that joining and becoming active in the ACLU is, in its own way, an act as progressive and political as joining a protest on the street.

Born in New York City to immigrant parents from Puerto Rico, Romero was the first in his family to graduate from high school. A graduate of Stanford University Law School and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, he was a Dinkelspiel Scholar at Stanford, a Cane Scholar at Princeton, and a National Hispanic Scholar at both institutions. Flushed with the success of a current string of court victories as well as the ACLU's Freedom Concert in early October, which featured Mos Def, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and more, Romero spoke with AlterNet about what it means to defend civil liberties in a time of war.

Rachel Neumann: First, how do you define civil liberties?

Anthony Romero: Civil liberties are the fundamental rights guaranteed to every person living in a free society. They are our most precious rights that ensure individual freedom and limit government intrusion in our lives.

When did you become a member of the ACLU and what drew you to the organization?

I'm a life member of the ACLU, and I started working directly with the organization on a professional level while I was at the Ford Foundation. But I was first introduced to the ACLU while in law school, since I had always thought of it as an organization that reflected my values.

What attracted me most to the ACLU is the organization's core mission, longstanding track record and commitment to principle. I believe that ACLU founder Roger Baldwin's vision for the organization is still relevant today, more than 80 years later. His belief that American democracy would be preserved only if we vehemently defended the Bill of Rights for everyone is a vision that I share.

My whole professional life has been committed to civil rights, civil liberties and social justice. It stems from my own life experience; my memories of discrimination, homophobia and poverty stand in sharp contrast to the dignity and love that I got from my family. Our job is to help others achieve their full potential, and protecting civil liberties is an essential part of that struggle.

What do you see as the ACLU's key goals in this period? Are they different than they have been in the past?

Sept. 11 obviously had a big impact on our work. There was understandably a lot of fear in the American public following the attacks. Our immediate goal was to get the message out that we must improve security in this country, but we must also be steadfast in our support of the values and freedoms that are the bedrock of this country. We had to make civil liberties a central part of the debate, and we have done that. Republicans and Democrats alike, communities across the nation, and courts are now questioning whether the government's actions went too far, too fast in diminishing our freedoms while not making us any safer.

Of course, even with the additional work that the government's policies after Sept. 11 created for us, we cannot afford to ignore the many other civil liberties issues that continue to require our attention. We're now fighting to secure marriage equality for lesbians and gays, reproductive choice for women, and fair and secure voting systems that enfranchise minority voters. I'm incredibly proud of the way we have responded to the additional challenges of 9/11 while maintaining our vigilance and effectiveness in areas such as women's rights, racial justice and lesbian and gay rights.

I'm also excited by the way we are reaching out to a broader spectrum of civil libertarians. We're involving more youth and we're also reaching out to organizations and individuals that aren't traditionally considered ACLU allies. I firmly believe in our non-partisan status, and that protecting civil liberties is of concern to both sides of the political aisle.

How do you think the organization has changed since you took over as director?

As a result of world events and a shift in our strategies, the ACLU has grown and changed a great deal. We've devoted more of our energies to local organizing, even as we continue to file suits in federal and state courts and lobby Congress. For instance, in addition to the litigation we recently filed on the Patriot Act, we hired a new cadre of 9/11 organizers to work with the staff in our 53 state offices in passing local resolutions challenging portions of the Patriot Act. This focus on a top priority for the whole organization, in which we coordinate litigation, communications, organizing and lobbying, is a relatively new approach for us. Over the past couple of years, the ACLU has also experienced its biggest membership surge in its 84-year history. Between 2001 and 2002, we enrolled almost 74,000 new members and between 2002 and 2003 we enrolled more than 93,000 new members. Last year that number jumped to more than 145,000 new members. We believe this is in large part due to the ACLU's leadership in opposing the John Ashcroft Justice Department and speaking out against wrong-minded post 9/11 measures such as the Patriot Act.

So did 9/11 change key elements of the ACLU's role or just strengthen the work you were already doing?

The ACLU has always led the resistance against policies and practices that undercut basic freedoms and strike at the heart of what this democracy is all about.

We opposed many of the actions taken by our government in the aftermath of Sept. 11, such as the rushed passage of the Patriot Act – a sweeping 342-page piece of legislation enacted just 45 days after Sept. 11 with virtually no debate. The need to champion civil liberties, especially during moments of crisis and uncertainty, is a sentiment that is shared by millions of Americans. Since 9/11, ACLU membership has increased by nearly 40 percent. Resolutions opposing the Patriot Act and other post 9/11 measures have been passed in 357 communities in 43 states, including four statewide resolutions. These communities represent approximately 55 million people who believe that the Patriot Act went too far, too fast.

You talk about ACLU growth. What specific work is being done to attract young people? Some of the younger ACLU members have spoken about wanting to do a lot more grassroots organizing (in collaboration with the already strong and important legal work). What do you see as the role of young people in the ACLU?

The ACLU is working to promote a new generation of committed civil libertarians and civil rights activists who want to devote their free time and resources to protecting freedoms. We have many energetic and committed student clubs and chapters in high schools and colleges across America that continually impress us with their creative endeavors to recruit new members. At our first national membership conference in 2003, 33 percent of attendees were between the ages of 18 and 34.

We also make it a priority to maintain a presence on college campuses by sponsoring special events, such as movie screenings and music performances. This fall, the ACLU College Freedom Tour will bring noted comedians to several colleges, including Howard University, Ohio State University, New York University and Clark Atlanta University. We also premiered the one-hour documentary done by Robert Greenwald ("Unconstitutional") at the University of Texas in front of sold-out shows of students.

Finally, it's important to acknowledge young people who have taken proactive steps in defending civil liberties. Every year, the ACLU offers ten Youth Activist Scholarships to college-bound high school seniors who have made outstanding contributions in the struggle for civil liberties, and especially for the rights of young people. These $4,000 scholarships – made possible by a generous donor – give the ACLU an opportunity to recognize the courage and commitment of young activists.

You've spoken a lot about the Patriot Act. How would you characterize these times in relationship to threats on civil liberties? Can you think of a time when these liberties were as or more threatened?

Throughout history we have seen an erosion of civil liberties during times of war or crisis. In the months following World War I, there were protests and riots all across this country arising from labor union strikes and fears that radicals were trying to import Soviet Bolshevism. There was concern that law and order was breaking down in the cities. The government's response was the Palmer Raids – mass arrests of Communists and suspected sympathizers across the country. Six thousand individuals were denied access to due process and counsel. There was wanton destruction of personal property. At the very end of that process, most of the individuals were found to be innocent. It was a gross violation of civil liberties and civil rights. And in fact, the Palmer Raids were one of several catalysts for the founding of the ACLU.

Then, during World War II, the government interned 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in camps. The ACLU, led by our California affiliates, was one of the few organizations to speak out against that treatment, and the only one to challenge the internments in court. Unfortunately, we lost that case in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it took 50 years for the government to apologize for its actions.

Then, as now, Americans were asked to give up some freedoms for the sake of law and order – only to discover that, to their horror, such sacrifices were not necessary, nor easy to undo.

At the recent ACLU nationwide conference in San Francisco, I was struck by the balanced and nonpartisan tone you took in introducing Govs. Howard Dean (D-Vermont) and Bill Owens (R-Colorado). I have a few questions related to this.

It seems the ACLU's nonpartisan role can be both a liability and an asset. Some young people I spoke with at the conference said that, before 9/11, they knew of the ACLU mainly because of its connection to defending Klan marches. What is the key value in maintaining that nonpartisan status? Does it work? And do you have many conservative members?

It is certainly true that protecting civil liberties can sometimes make for what might be considered strange bedfellows. Over the years, progress has been made on civil liberties and social justice in the United States through broad-based, nonpartisan coalitions working together to achieve equality and freedom.

Some people were surprised to learn that we work with individuals such as Bob Barr, Grover Norquist, Dick Armey and David Keane of the American Conservative Union, but our collaborative efforts with these individuals are indicative of the broad-based concern for civil liberties in light of the government's actions. We are also working with a bipartisan coalition in Congress to pass the SAFE Act, which would restore some of the civil liberties curtailed by the Patriot Act. The legislation's original co-sponsors are Sens. Larry Craig, Republican from Idaho, and Richard Durbin, Democrat from Illinois – two men who are rarely on the same side of an issue. In this case, however, they share a concern over protecting liberty in a time of crisis.

Regarding our membership, we don't keep track of the political or ideological leanings of our members. However, I have received many letters from people who say, "I'm a life-long Republican and consider myself a conservative, but I'm joining the ACLU because the government's actions after Sept. 11 run contrary to my values." When all is said and done, the ACLU has no permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent values.

We've just finished a series of presidential debates in which civil liberties issues were barely mentioned. How do you see civil liberties being affected by the upcoming Presidential election?

Regardless of what happens on Nov. 2, the ACLU will be as necessary as ever in defending civil liberties. The Bill of Rights is constantly under attack from many different directions. The Patriot Act, for example, was passed with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. No matter what party has been in the White House, the ACLU has always had plenty of work defending our liberties.

Is there any part of the Constitution you would change?

The Constitution is a document that should be changed only to expand the rights and freedoms granted to Americans, not to restrict them. All too often, we see politicians using the Constitution as a prop in their campaigns. The most notable assault on the Constitution is the current attempt by politicians to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment. This amendment actually takes away existing legal protections, under state and local laws, from committed, long-term couples, such as hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, pension benefits, and health insurance coverage among others.

We have also seen repeated attempts by politicians and some groups to pass the Flag Desecration Amendment. This amendment does harm to one of the most important freedoms the flag symbolizes: free speech. Freedom cannot survive if exceptions to the First Amendment are made whenever someone in power disagrees with a particular viewpoint.

The ACLU just won an important victory when a federal judge struck down a key provision of the Patriot Act. Are there other key aspects of the Patriot Act that you think need to be repealed? What is your perspective on the additional security measures currently being considered by Congress?

The Sept. 29 ruling striking down the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act was an important victory for civil liberties, as well as for our internet service provider client (whom we still can't name because of a gag order). This provision, Section 505, expanded a 1986 law by removing an individualized suspicion requirement from the issuance of NSLs. Basically, under this Patriot Act provision, the FBI has the power to unilaterally use these national security letters to demand that internet service providers and other businesses turn over sensitive information about any of their clients, including information on individuals who are not suspected of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

While this ruling against the expanded NSL power is indeed an important victory, we still have a long road ahead of us in rolling back some of the most egregious provisions of the Patriot Act. The ACLU is currently challenging Section 215 of the Act in court, which vastly expands the FBI's power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States, including American citizens and permanent residents. Under this provision, the FBI can secretly obtain personal belongings, including your apartment key, as well as any medical, library and other private records without seeking a subpoena or a warrant based on probable cause, and they can gag anyone from telling you this was ever done. We are seeing unprecedented authority for government agents to spy on Americans, yet the public has been kept unaware of how these powers are being used. The ACLU and its allies believe that the public has a right to know how new surveillance powers are being enacted. To vindicate the public's right to information about government activity, the ACLU and other public interest organizations have also filed two requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking records relating to the Justice Department's implementation and use of the Patriot Act.

Meanwhile, Congress is currently debating expanding the Patriot Act through the legislation that would implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, even though the Act has been met with a steady and widespread backlash from millions of Americans. Lawmakers should be working to fix the problems with the Patriot Act, not trying to expand it.

Will there ever be a time when we don't need the ACLU?

For as long as there is an America, and as long as there is a Constitution, we're going to need the ACLU. We've got to be a permanent fixture on America's political landscape.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.