The ACLU’s Slow, Sad Turn Away from First Amendment Advocacy

The New York Times recently published a profile of the American Civil Liberties Union’s gradual turn away from being the pre-eminent defender of freedom of speech in the United States.

The change in the organization is punctuated by Ben Wizner, the head of ACLU’s free speech, privacy and technology project. Referencing the rise of the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education’s nonpartisan, uncompromising defense of free speech on campus, Wizner tells the Times,

FIRE does not have the same tensions. At the A.C.L.U., free speech is one of 12 or 15 different values.

Too often, free speech at the ACLU seems like McDonald’s Shamrock Shake–something brought out for a few days a year to appease hardcore fans, even though the franchise itself has long moved on.

ACLU’s Searchable NSA Document Database

The American Civil Liberties Union has created a searchable database of NSA documents released since June 2013 when selections from Edward Snowden’s massive cache of documents started being reported.

We have made all of the documents text-searchable to allow users to investigate particular key words or phrases. Alternatively, the filter function allows users to sort based on the type of surveillance involved, the specific legal authorities implicated, the purpose of the surveillance, or the source of the disclosure. For example, you can have the database return all documents that both pertain to “Section 215” and “Internal NSA/DOJ Legal Analysis.” We will update the database with new documents as they become available to the public

ACLU to Newspaper — Shut Up Already

The American Civil Liberties Union is once again demonstrating its committment to free speech by asking a judge to gag the Omaha World Herald. The Herald wants to publish the name of a man who sued Plattsmouth, Neb., over a Ten Commandments monument there. The ACLU, in turn, has suddenly got that old time prior restraint religion.

The ACLU claims that the man has received anonymous threats and publishing his name could subject him to further threats. But as Omaha World Herald executive editor Larry King notes,

King said The World-Herald is not at the point of publishing any article identifying the man. But if newspapers made publication decisions based on anonymous threats, King said, they would have to quit writing about “everyone from football coaches to politicians.”

“This is not a case in which an individual, through no fault or action of his own, found himself in the middle of a dispute,” King said. “This man is trying to force a city to make a controversial change it doesn’t want to make. If you want to change public policy, it should not be a surprise that you could be publicly identified.”

I guess the ACLU must still be stinging from its loss in its suit to protect the rights of teens to attend nudist camps without parental supervision.


ACLU requests restraint on press. Todd Cooper, Omaha World Herald, September 21, 2004.

Parental rule upheld for teen nudist camp. Associated Press, August 10, 2004.

Kerry vs. Ashcroft on Civil Liberties

Politics creates such odd matchups sometimes. Today it’s John Kerry promising not to let John Ashcroft destroy our civil liberties. But a decade ago, as Reason reminds us, it was Kerry who was trying desperately to restrict civil liberties while Ashcroft defended them,

This isn’t the first time Kerry and Ashcroft have been at odds over civil liberties. In the 1990s, government proposals to restrict encryption inspired a national debate. Then as now, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and electronic privacy groups locked horns with the DOJ and law enforcement agencies. Then as now, Kerry and Ashcroft were on opposite sides.

But there was noteworthy difference in those days. Then it was Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) who argued alongside the ACLU in favor of the individual’s right to encrypt messages and export encryption software. Ashcroft “was kind of the go-to guy for all of us on the Republican side of the Senate,” recalls David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

And in what now seems like a bizarre parallel universe, it was John Kerry who was on the side of the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the DOJ. Ashcroft’s predecessor at the Justice Department, Janet Reno, wanted to force companies to create a “clipper chip” for the government—a chip that could “unlock” the encryption codes individuals use to keep their messages private. When that wouldn’t fly in Congress, the DOJ pushed for a “key escrow” system in which a third-party agency would have a “backdoor” key to read encrypted messages.

As late as 1997, Reason notes, Kerry was the first co-sponsor to John McCain’s Secure Public Networks Act which would have created a national key escrow registry and solidified the Clinton ban on encryption exports (they should have called this the Encourage Encryption Offshoring Act).

There’s also this Kerry response to a defense of strong encryption that appeared in Wired, in which Kerry alludes to those murder in the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing,

[O]ne would be hard-pressed,” he wrote, “to find a single grieving relative of those killed in the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York or the federal building in Oklahoma City who would not have gladly sacrificed a measure of personal privacy if it could have saved a loved one.

I guess he actually voted in favor of sacrificing freedom for security before he voted against it.


John Kerry’s Monstrous Record on Civil Liberties. John Berlau, Reason, July 26, 2004.