ACLU Sees Membership Surge After 9/11

WASHINGTON (AP) — Whether protecting the disenfranchised or standing up for the right to offend, the American Civil Liberties Union has sided with those claiming they were wronged, even if it meant a distinctly minority stand.

But since Sept. 11 and the government's expansive campaign of monitoring and detention, people are turning to the 82-year-old organization to help safeguard their liberties. Among them are conservatives who made the phrase ``card-carrying member of the ACLU'' a political insult, but who now are signing up.

``Larger numbers of American people have realized that the ACLU is fundamentally a patriotic organization.'' executive director Anthony Romero said.

There are now 330,000 dues-paying members, 50,000 of whom joined after the attacks.

The group has been in the thick of legal challenges to the government's broadening anti-terror powers.

Last week, in response to an ACLU lawsuit, the government agreed to tell the group by mid-January which documents it is willing to release about its increased surveillance activities.

Especially notable among the new enthusiasts are conservatives who once thought the ACLU represented everything that was wrong with the left.

``They are very useful and productive force in jurisprudence,'' said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

Conservatives such as Hyde are mindful of the history of an organization that was lonely in its defense of positions now accepted as universal: Blacks who suffered spurious prosecutions in the 1930s, Japanese interned in the 1940s, books banned as obscene now regarded as part of the literary canon.

Yet the group continues to exasperate some with its uncompromising positions — against a Ten Commandments monument in a Frederick, Md., park, against the government's attempt to get libraries to use computer filters to block sexually explicit material from children, against drug sweeps that it claims are racially motivated.

``Some of their positions are extreme, such as objecting to metal detectors in high schools'' where there has been a high incidence of violence, Hyde said.

For the first time, the ACLU is spending part of its $50 million annual budget on a national television commercial. An actor portraying John Ashcroft crosses the phrase ``We the People'' from the Constitution as a narrator says the attorney general has ``seized powers for the Bush administration no president has ever had.''

``This focus on civil liberties post-9/11 has been a wonderful opportunity to reach out to constituencies who would never have thought of the ACLU as their home,'' said Nadine Strossen, the ACLU's president.

The organization has budgeted $3.5 million for a campaign that asks Americans to monitor their government monitors and report abuses. It is a mirror image to the government's plan to empower some Americans to check on their neighbors, under a program known as the Terrorism Information and Prevention System.

``When you have the highest ranking law enforcement official in the country saying either you're with me or against me, and that your tactics aid the terrorists, that rubs people the wrong way,'' Romero said.

That includes conservatives who bridle at government intrusions into privacy. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have said they will consider serving as consultants for the group when they leave Congress next month.

Hyde has worked with the ACLU to protect free speech on campuses and limit the right of authorities to seize assets.

``I'm glad the ACLU raises the objections it does, because it forces the government and Congress to be mindful of First Amendment rights,'' he said.

In 1989, Hyde railed against the organization as a smirking opponent of the rights of the unborn. Before that, he had said it was part of a ``Bermuda Triangle'' swallowing up Reagan administration anti-crime measures.

Hyde chuckles at those memories, and even admits he may have used the ``card-carrying member of the ACLU'' phrase coined by Vice President George Bush in his 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Probably the ACLU's most unpopular stand came in 1978, when it successfully defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

ACLU membership dropped by 15 percent after that. Its insistence on removing Christmas and Hanukkah decorations from publicly owned property did not help, either. Strossen says nothing has fundamentally changed; defending Nazis' right to march then is the same as defending the right to roam the Internet now.

``One person's stigma is another's badge of honor,'' she said. ``Putting your money where your mouth is means defending those whose views are counter to yours.''

Still, the organization says it now recognizes a need to reach out, and some conservatives are glad about that.

``The one thing that I find very encouraging about all of this is that people are willing to move beyond their ideological trenches and join forces,'' said Ward Connerly, a conservative whose frustration with the ACLU's support for affirmative action led him to found the competing American Civil Rights Institute.

``If they keep hiring more Bob Barrs, I might renew the membership I canceled in 1962.''

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