Frozen speech?
Gasp! ACLU should be haven for dissent

It's heartbreaking when an organization you support and revere develops an internal schism.

That's what's happening now to the American Civil Liberties Union, a frontline organization in defending us all against those who disregard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The struggle has involved two of the state's most distinguished civil libertarians - Bennett Hammer and Mary Beth Acuff - who are in opposition to the current status quo. And it may result in an external ACLU watchdog group composed of many alienated members.

Hammer, the most principled and scrupulous public person I know, was driven to resign from the local board, not nine months after being awarded the ACLU-N.M.'s coveted Civil Libertarian of the Year.

From my reading, the current power structure of the national and local ACLU is purging, or severely marginalizing, those who dissent from their policies. Fighting hard against abuses of executive power in the White House, the ACLU leadership has taken on a distinctly White House-like position - you're either with us or against us.

It is a complicated story involving financial questions, condoning suspected terrorist watch lists, attempts at data mining contributors, and the most galling, a gag order which would have prohibited ACLU board members from publicly criticizing ACLU staff and other board members.

Hammer, who was the elected state office's national board representative, told the board in New York that such behavior is making the ACLU a "laughingstock." And, he was quoted in the New York Times. Hammer was right.

No one I talked to could believe the ACLU, the champion of free speech, would even contemplate such a thing. Many just guffawed. After vivid reporting in the New York Times, questions of legality from the New York Attorney General, and publicity from open debate over many weeks, the national board began to back down from the gag order.

Mary Beth Acuff, former chair of the New Mexico ACLU, and one of its guiding spirits, had called "for the ACLU to meet its own standards," in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

The developing schism is a nasty one.

After Hammer was quoted in the New York Times, he was locked out of the ACLU office, a building he, as a Realtor, helped secure for the organization, and in which his ACLU archives are kept and where he works on them at night. He also was excluded from a secret Executive Committee meeting, the agenda of which concerned his views and activities.

Hammer resigned from both the national and local boards in July. He joined another ACLU-N.M. director who resigned over management issues in New Mexico. I would have joined them if I were still on the board.

How terrible to have the moral edge of the ACLU, the champion of civil rights, blunted by internal struggles over freedom of speech. It's a bitter irony. We need the ACLU intact, not in splinters.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
September 23, 2006