Was This the Day the ACLU Lost its Integrity?

(I am taking the liberty of posting here an excerpt from my book “Journalism and Other Atrocities”  (2010). Fortunately, I am the only person who can do this without having to pay royalties.)

In 1963, toward the end of my tenure at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I began to think that I would like to get out of journalism and work for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s principal purpose was to ensure that people enjoyed the fullest legal protection under the Bill of Rights. I wasn’t a lawyer, but I thought I might be useful on the administrative side.

I was a big fan of the Bill of Rights, having been guided in that direction by one of my literary idols, H.L. Mencken. Mencken was not what one could call a liberal, but he was a Bill of Rights fundamentalist.  His favorite among the first ten amendments was the first, guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press. He was even a First Amendment activist, and had legal run-ins with the book-banners of his day.

On the most memorable occasion, in 1926, he allowed himself to be arrested for selling a copy of the magazine he edited, The American Mercury, which contained a story about a prostitute written by the renowned author Herbert Asbury. The sale took place in Boston, which was famous for banning literary materials, and Mencken won the case, the judge finding that the story, entitled “Hatrack,” was not obscene.

As a reporter, I got to know the executive director in charge of the ACLU in Philadelphia, a man named Spencer Coxe, who was tall, slender and unusually civilized for a Philadelphian. Good at his job, too. I liked to write articles about civil liberties issues, and he was just the person to interview. The legal definition of obscenity, for example, was a huge issue in those days, because such previously banned books as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” were finally being openly sold in the United States. There were court cases galore.

Nobody else on our staff seemed interested in civil liberties, so Coxe asked me whether he should send me the press releases he might normally direct to the city desk. I told him to go ahead. As a result, civil liberties began to receive more coverage in the Inquirer.

One day I told Coxe that I might be interested in working for the ACLU. I had never become an ACLU member, because I felt that membership in almost any organization could be a conflict of interest for a journalist, but I was hot to become an employee.

It would have been great if I could have worked as Coxe’s assistant; I wouldn’t even have to move. That wasn’t an option, it turned out, but he promised to let me know of any openings nationwide that might suit me.

In the meantime he continued to call me with ACLU releases. He would say something to the effect that he was still watching for job openings, and in the meantime here is our latest release.

Finally, he came across with a couple of recommendations. The ACLU was looking to hire new executive directors in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, and in Spokane, Washington, and Coxe told me how to apply. I applied, hoping that Coxe would put in a good word for me, but I don’t recall that either organization responded to my applications.

After a while I got a new journalistic job in New York.

One time, during the mid-70s, a colleague at Fortune magazine suggested that I join an ACLU advisory committee to which she belonged. I still had never joined the ACLU, but that didn’t seem to matter. The organization was interested in the opinions of professional journalists on First Amendment issues.

This seemed to be up my alley, so I joined the committee. I don’t believe there was any vetting process. The fact that I wrote for Fortune seemed good enough to land me a place at the conference table.

There really was a conference table, a big one, where all the supposed First Amendment experts sat and deliberated. Various First Amendment cases, or prospective ones, were presented to the group by ACLU lawyers, and we would go around the table and discuss them, then take a vote on what the ACLU should do. This seemed to work well. We were a like-minded group, so it was easy to come to a consensus, and although the ACLU was not required to follow our recommendations, the lawyers pretty much agreed with us.

Then a very special situation was brought to our attention. The ACLU was trying to establish a policy for handling cases involving child pornography. The organization had defended publishers of the vilest Nazi propaganda, so there was at least a chance that it would hold its collective nose and defend people involved in child pornography.

However, there were two basic types of child pornography cases — those involving people who actually created the pornography, and those involving people who merely sold it, without getting into the production end. Everybody at the table agreed that the ACLU shouldn’t represent people who created the pornography, that this was not really a First Amendment issue; it was child abuse, which was punishable by law everywhere, and couldn’t be defended on constitutional (or any other) grounds.

As for the lowlifes who merely sold the stuff, the people at the table were inclined to be more lenient. Almost all of us opposed any effort by the government to prosecute people for selling published materials. Although we were appalled by child pornography, we felt that those who merely sold it might be entitled to constitutional protection.

Sitting at the head of the table that day was one of the more prominent and influential ACLU lawyers, Harriet Pilpel. She listened to our discussion, she witnessed our vote favoring legal representation for those who merely sold child pornography, and then she overruled us. She explained that the ACLU had enemies who considered it subversive, rather than a champion of American liberties, and that if it defended anyone involved in child pornography, that could prove politically fatal.

I could see her point, but now I realized that the ACLU was just another political entity, whose actions were based on pragmatic grounds as much as idealism. This took the bloom off for me, and I never returned to that conference table. I never joined the organization either.

Author Bio:

Arthur Louis spent more than forty years as a print journalist, with the Philadelphia Inquirer, McGraw-Hill, Fortune magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, but he is not asking for sympathy. He is the author of two non-fiction books: The Tycoons, and Journalism and Other Atrocities, as well as a novel, The Little Champ. In retirement, he has decided unilaterally that he is a profound political pundit.
Author website: http://bernardgoldberg.com
  • Wheels55

    No one and no organization looks out for you better than you can yourself. Not the ACLU, AARP, NAACP, Unions, Al Sharpton, Rush, etc. They are all out for profit first and foremost.
    When people wake up and realize that, maybe this country can have the amount of personal responsibility to be strong again.

    • Artlouis

       True enough, Wheels