John Leo

Meyers leveled many criticisms at Romero, among them: that he is intolerant of dissent, withholds financial information from the board, and cuts funding of ACLU affiliates if they are critical of him. He also says Romero instructed Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, to create a policy restricting board members' rights to speak directly to staff. Meyers said that policy was twice changed. Now questions by board members have to be voted on and agreed to by a majority of the executive committee before Romero will agree to answer.

Meyers thinks the ACLU's backing of the Maloney bill is an indication that the organization has strayed from its "traditional free-speech roots" and turned to "identity politics." It's hard to imagine the ACLU of 10 or 20 years ago asking government to monitor advertising.

But the ACLU now has issue-oriented lobbies inside it. They are called "projects" and include the "Reproductive Freedom Project," the "Women's Rights Project" and the "Lesbian and Gay Rights Project." The influence of the projects, and the money they bring in, often tend to sway the ACLU away from its once primary concern about free speech.

For instance, the ACLU came out early against the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a conspiracy statute aimed at the Mafia. RICO always had the potential to be used to curb political dissent, and when defenders of abortion started to use it against anti-abortion protesters, the ACLU waffled and looked the other way. Harvey Silverglate, of the Massachusetts ACLU, said sympathy of abortion rights caused the national ACLU to drop its guard on a serious violation of political freedom.

In 2003, after 17 years of litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion protesters couldn't be punished as racketeers under RICO. No thanks to the ACLU. The organization still defends free speech, but not always when that speech is directed against a group or an interest it cares about.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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