First Woman President of American Civil Liberties Union Discusses Human Rights
Students gathered in Coulter Science Center Lecture Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. to listen to Nadine Strossen relay her former experience of serving as president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a speech with the theme “Universality” — the idea that human rights are fundamental and apply equally to everyone — at its core, Strossen highlighted historical and recent events to connect students with what it means to have human rights in the United States.
The ACLU neutrally supports human rights for all people, according to Strossen, who served as president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008. The ACLU has intervened to support these rights even in times of controversy, based on the notion that all rights are interdependent: Threats to some groups’ rights or certain types of rights put all other rights at risk.
For example, Strossen mentioned the ACLU’s defense of free speech in 1978 when a neo-Nazi group wanted to march through Skokie, Ill., an area where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU prevailed in defending the neo-Nazis’ right to speak and assemble freely. Although the neo-Nazi group never marched through Skokie (they instead held a rally in downtown Chicago), the case remains a symbol of the ACLU’s commitment to defend rights equally.
Such controversial stands have made the ACLU a common target of criticism and a source of satire. Strossen gave the example of a 2003 article from The Onion called “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.” In that article, a paragraph reads, “Buddy Carver, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Nazi Party, praised the ACLU for taking on his case. ‘I would like to thank Ms. Strossen and all the other nigger-loving bleeding-heart liberals at the ‘ACL-Jew’ for defending my constitutional right to express my loathing of them with hundred-foot-high flames,’ said Carver, sporting a tan uniform and swastika arm band. ‘We must finish the job Hitler was unable to.’”
“I’m often asked, ‘What about the rights of the majority?’” Strossen said as her speech continued. She answered this question by saying the Framers of the Constitution said that no majority should take the rights of the minority. “All of our rights are worth only the paper they’re written on, unless people know their rights and speak up for them,” Strossen added.
She then discussed the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for anti-gay protests at military funerals. Strossen recalled that the Westboro Baptist Church once protested against the ACLU while she was delivering a speech at the University of Kansas. The church called the civil liberties group “The Nation’s #1 Fag Community,” and “Anal Coagulators and Lesbians Union.”
“The ACLU defends the free speech rights of the Westboro Baptist Church,” Strossen said. She added that the government cannot single out the Westboro Baptist Church for its message.
Strossen also mentioned the First Amendment rights of those students who received media attention for protesting about Ferguson at Governor Nixon’s speech in Kansas City last November. The students stood and raised their hands in a silent protest. Nixon commended these students and encouraged their support for growth and change, Strossen said.
Free speech is just one of many issues the ACLU addresses. The group also works on privacy and surveillance, prisoners’ rights, and racial justice, among others.
Strossen discussed airport security, which has been in the news for controversial checkpoint screenings. The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, looks for behavior indicators at checkpoint screenings, such as whistling, widely open eyes, rubbing eyes, exaggerated yawning, and constantly clearing the throat. As a result of indicating one of these behaviors, a passenger may be subject to more in depth screenings. Some argue the TSA’s behavior indicators are based on “junk science” and are a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The former president of the ACLU also touched on the topic of racial disparities in incarceration rates. African Americans and Hispanics make up 30 percent of the United States’ population, but 54 percent of African Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated in this country, according to Strossen. Strossen added there are more African Americans in prison today compared to those who faced slavery in the 1850s.
While discussing the rights of people in the United States, Strossen made note of the ACLU’s free Mobile Justice app. This app shows what rights you have when pulled over by police, and it has a clip that will be sent to the ACLU if police try to grab your phone.
After Strossen’s speech concluded, the audience asked questions. One audience member wanted to know about the rights of sex offenders. Strossen discussed Megan’s Law of New Jersey, which states that law enforcement has to make registered sex offender information public. Strossen said nobody can predict who is likely to offend, including sex offenders. The ACLU says that laws against sex offenders need to be reconsidered in the article “Why Sex Offender Laws Do More Harm Than Good.”
“I think it’s going to be a long, long time before those laws are pulled back,” Strossen said.
Students said they were grateful Strossen came to campus to give a speech.
“I was very thankful to get the opportunity to actually sit down and talk to Nadine,” Greta Morina, ’16, said. “She was very sweet and outgoing and answered any questions we had. I can definitely say that meeting her made my hopes to become a lawyer even better, as we discussed the law school process and choosing between a popular school or a school that gives you the money to actually pay for it. Nadine made us realize that the latter was definitely most important. It took off some pressure, that’s for sure.”