I have a dirty little secret. Several, actually. I think school uniforms are a good idea. I think child molesters should be locked up for life, not merely put on a registry. So what in the world am I doing at the..
I have a dirty little secret. Several, actually. I think school uniforms are a good idea. I think child molesters should be locked up for life, not merely put on a registry. So what in the world am I doing at the ICLU, insisting that government follow the rules whether I like the results or not?
I am at the ICLU because someone has to do it.
The Bill of Rights is not self-enforcing. (The Soviet Constitution had nice language about individual rights, too, but that language was routinely ignored.) The ICLU exists to be a pain in the posterior; to remind government officials that we follow the rules here,that there is a huge difference between saying “I disagree with the way you are exercising your rights” and “I disagree with you; therefore you should not have rights.”
In 1933, the ACLU successfully battled the government’s refusal to allow James Joyce’s Ulysses to be sold in the United States. In cases that followed, ACLU lawyers established principles that we now take for granted: public places like streets and parks belong to the people, not the government; “separate but equal” isn’t; the right to privacy includes a married couple’s right to use contraception and a woman’s right to choose; government cannot forbid interracial marriage; poor people cannot be prevented from traveling from state to state; government cannot force children to salute the flag in violation of their religious beliefs; restrictive covenants against blacks or Jews cannot be enforced; poor people charged with a crime have a right to a court-appointed lawyer; democracy means “one person, one vote.” These rules are taken for granted today, but each and every one was won in defiance of the conventional wisdom and majority opinion of the times.
Civil libertarians may not always be right, but in an adversarial system, we are indispensable. The majority will always exercise enormous power over the institutions of government. Unless there is a countervailing force to insist on the rights of the individual, the individual will not have rights. We are that countervailing force.
When I was in private practice, it was my job to make each client’s case as forcefully as possible. The lawyer on the other side advocated for his/her client with equal vigor. Strenuous arguments on behalf of differing interests are necessary to a just result. Today, my “client” is the Bill of Rights, and my job is to argue for the liberties protected by that document as forcefully as possible. It is the job of the government to justify infringements of those liberties, and the job of the courts to decide whose position will prevail.
The ICLU is often accused of working to protect individuals’ rights without regard to more communal interests. That is our job. It is the job of those who believe that particular rights are unwarranted or dangerous to make that case. Much of the annoyance with the ICLU comes from a misunderstanding of our role.
We are liberty’s lawyers, not society’s.