Topic: Professions & Institutions

No Hypocrisy at the ACLU

The supposed hypocrisy of the American Civil Liberties Union considering policies that would discourage Board members from publicly criticizing the organization has upset the Left and delighted the Right. The proposal, championed by the organization’s executive director, says that “a director may publicly disagree with an A.C.L.U. policy position, but may not criticize the A.C.L.U. board or staff.” The A.C.L.U.’s liberal fans are horrified: the champion of Free Speech abridging the speech of its own board? Heresy! Meanwhile, its conservative critics are giggling. “So it’s do as I say, not as I do, eh, A.C.L.U.? Crazy about Free Speech as long as it’s not directed at you, I guess.”

Not helping the organization weather this crisis of integrity are the extreme reactions of dissident ACLU board members, who have reacted to the proposal as if it required them to wear sheets and burn crosses. Not surprisingly, the proposed policy was prompted by the actions of a few disaffected board members who were in the habit of running to the press every time a board vote didn’t go their way.

From a legal and policy viewpoint, there is nothing hypocritical or unethical about an organization that guards against government infringement of the First Amendment rights of Americans prohibiting its board or staff from slamming the organization in public. This doesn’t involve the First Amendment or the government. Any of the ACLU’s board will still have the right to say whatever they want; they just may have to leave the Board to say it. That’s fine. Organizations have a legitimate interest in making sure that management and staff are loyal and do not harm their missions or viability.

The frenzied protests of some board members make one wonder if they actually understand either the group’s purpose or the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The ethics of non-profit organizational management and leadership requires the strength, effectiveness and survival of the organization to take precedence over the interests of individual staff or members, and these include the desire to buck organizational decisions by using the press. The A.C.L.U. mission, however many missteps it has made in recent years, is still immensely important, and it is fair, reasonable and responsible for the organization to curtail the impulses of Board members to pursue their own agendas to the detriment of that mission. If they want to attack the work of their own organization, fine: they can resign in protest, and hold a press conference. The First Amendment has no provision guaranteeing a citizen the right to have his cake and eat it too.

It is in fact the carping board members and liberal critics of the proposed policy who are the hypocrites. They do not really believe what they are saying, for there is much protected speech that they would never tolerate from a board member, officer or staff. What if an A.C.L.U. Board member advocates genocide? The firing of gay teachers? Torture? White supremacy? All Constitutionally protected speech, and all presumably taboo for those involved with the A.C.L.U. Would the complaining board members really support the right of an openly racist colleague to keep his or her vote on the organization’s activities?

Not likely. Many of the recent positions taken by the A.C.L.U. have indicated a serious lack of perspective and common sense at the highest reaches of the organization, and the comments from the board members offended by the suggestion that the A.C.L.U. needs to govern itself like any other effective institution provide strong clues about where the bad judgement is coming from. If the new policy forces some of these members to leave, it may be a good thing. The Ethics Scoreboard suspects this might even have occurred to those who suggested the policy change in the first place.

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