How not to Lose Your Organization’s Soul
I remember watching the 1981 film Skokie on television with my parents. I was 14, and they let me stay up late that night to see the entire film.The movie was about the American Nazi Party selecting the suburb Skokie, just north of Chicago, as the site of its next rally. Close to 40 per cent of the suburb’s population was Jewish, and many were Holocaust survivors. For the survivors, the prospect of the Nazi march was a terrifying evocation of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.They opposed it with all their might. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), represented by a Jewish attorney named David Goldberger, took up the cause of defending the Nazis’ right to march on free speech grounds.
My mother, a Jew from Iraq, sided with the survivors. My father, a Jew of European descent and a civil libertarian, sided with those defending the Nazis’ right to march. I was squarely with my dad and the First Amendment. If you didn’t think Nazis—the very incarnation of evil—had the right to freedom of expression just like everyone else, then you didn’t really support the First Amendment.The movie had such a profound impact on me that I thought I might eventually take up public interest law.
Seven years later, when President George H.W. Bush lambasted his Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” I wanted to know where I could get one of those cards. Today, if I had an ACLU card, I’d be tempted to turn it in.
Today, the ACLU bears little resemblance to the organisation that defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie. While I have no doubt there still are civil liberties stalwarts in its ranks, the organization has embraced a critical social justice ethos which flies in the face of civil liberties. Numerous other organizations seem to be abandoning their principles as well. I’m sounding the alarm because it could be happening to your organization, bit by bit, and you may not even be aware of it.
A leaked 2018 ACLU memo that set guidelines on case selection made it clear that the organization would no longer defend the speech of those it disagreed with. It would reject cases based on “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values”. When you only defend the free speech of those you agree with, you are not defending free speech. You are defending policies that you agree with.
The ACLU also abandoned its longstanding support for due process when the previous Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, announced in 2017 that she was overturning an Obama-era rule that encouraged universities to adjudicate sexual assault allegations on campus in a manner circumventing due process. The ACLU said the rules protecting due process would “make schools less safe for survivors” and “inappropriately favor the accused”. The old ACLU would have taken the opposite stance because that was central to its mission–to protect due process and constitutional rights.
How did it come to this? Perhaps it started with the hiring of a bevvy of staffers who never really shared the organization’s core commitments to civil liberties.Then the organization acceded to demands from those same staffers to take positions at odds with its core commitments. It happened, no doubt, because critical social justice discourse that insisted on its own inviolable truth insinuated itself into the organization’s policies and culture and overwhelmed its liberal principles.
Slowly but surely the ideal of freedom yielded to the fad of harm prevention. Before you knew it, the organization no longer stood firm on civil liberties.
ACLU is not an anomaly. Other nonprofits and for-profits alike have experienced the same generational dynamics and pressures, made the same concessions, allowed the same concept creep, and produced the same shameful results, often without a shot ever being fired.
This could happen to your organization and perhaps already is. Put on the breaks before it’s too late and clearly articulate your values. We at Counterweight are here to help.
This article originally appeared on the website Counterweight and is reprinted here by permission.