Oct. 12, 2009

ACLU president: Civil rights improved under Obama, but mission isn't accomplished

There was a time in America's history when criticizing the government could land one in jail. While America was founded upon the principle of freedom of speech, that liberty has needed to be defended in times of crisis, said Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while speaking on campus Oct. 8.

In her lecture, "Civil Liberties in the Age of Obama," Herman said that in the past eight years, civil rights have been under attack in the name of security. The ACLU, said Herman, who is a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, seeks to protect Americans, and her "client is the Bill of Rights."

Protecting the First Amendment has changed since the ACLU was founded in 1917, she said. During World War I, the Supreme Court was willing to criminalize unpopular speech, claiming it was not covered by the First Amendment; Herman asserted that "the role of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech as well as popular speech."

The ACLU is "unpopular because of what we're doing right; we defend people who say unpopular things," she said. Herman reviewed a litany of controversial cases the ACLU has litigated, including the Scopes Monkey Trial and Loving v. Virginia, which allowed for interracial marriages. She said that these controversies never go away; public school boards, for example, continue to fight for the right to teach intelligent design, a practice the ACLU does not deem to be science. She also warned that the progress that began with Loving v. Virginia is being threatened by anti-same-sex marriage amendments being brought forth in many states.

Although progress in protecting civil liberties has improved under the Obama administration, Herman said, "It's not time for a 'Mission Accomplished' banner yet."

Upon his inauguration, Obama was asked by the ACLU to do three things: close Guantanamo Bay detention camp, denounce torture and make the government more transparent. In his first days in office, Obama appeared to be complying, but then stopped short of eliminating "preventative detention." The ACLU has also sought action to prosecute top officials who allowed torture in the Bush era, while Obama has said he does not want to look back at the past.

Herman warned the audience that such basic tenets of justice as habeas corpus and probable cause are routinely revoked when the federal government deals with "enemy combatants" who are not treated as prisoners of war (because the United States is not at war with their home nations) or as domestic criminals (because they have usually been arrested abroad). This leaves them in a legal limbo, she said, detained indefinitely and subjected to such torture as waterboarding during the Bush years.

Herman stressed that the ACLU's core principle is to enforce the "Golden Rule" -- to treat others as one would like to be treated. "There's something wrong with not treating people equally," she concluded.

The lecture was part of Cornell's Institute for Public Affairs Colloquium Series.

Jordan Walters '11 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.