(Craig Crawford, The Orlando Sentinel, 8/16/1987) — Alan Reitman reaches for what he calls “The Bible,” a blue looseleaf notebook filled with provocative policies he has advanced during 39 years as a national spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The book reads like a history of the modern struggle over what Reitman calls “our client, the Bill of Rights.” Through it all, the ACLU has become perhaps the nation’s most unpopular private institution.
“We are not destined to be loved by a majority of Americans,” Reitman, 66, said. “We are the nation’s gadfly, its Jiminy Cricket conscience.”
Begun in 1920 to combat the Wilson administration’s mass arrests of protesters against American involvement in World War I, the ACLU has represented, without charge, a wide variety of people whose civil liberties were challenged:
- John T. Scopes, a high school teacher who in 1925 was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution.
- The approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans held in camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
- Government employees who refused to take anti-communist loyalty oaths during the 1950s.
- Florida inmate Clarence Gideon, who claimed successfully in 1963 that criminal defendants should be given a lawyer if they can’t afford one.
- The American Nazi Party, which in 1977 won the right to demonstrate in Skokie, Ill., a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago.
The ACLU has grown steadily from its initial 40 members to nearly 200 full-time staffers, more than 250,000 members and a $15-million annual budget from grants and membership dues.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency the ACLU enjoyed a dramatic rise in membership and contributions. Reitman attributes that to anti-libertarian views espoused by several administration figures, including Attorney General Edwin Meese, who said the Bill of Rights affords citizens protection from the federal government but not from the states. “In Meese,” Reitman said, “we have a live devil.”
ACLU officials insist that they defend the liberties under attack, not the individuals. They believe that even the most unloved Americans should be protected from restrictions of their rights, in order to preserve constitutional freedoms for everyone.
“The Bill of Rights puts limits on what the majority can do to the minority,” legal director John Powell said. “But it seems we’re always fighting a rear-guard battle against those who ignore the limits. Americans should understand that what we’re doing is the best way to protect people from government.”
Still, the ACLU is at odds with most Americans in case after case, reinforcing its reputation for being wrongheaded.
Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff Lawson Lamar echoed that sentiment when he was told last month that ACLU officials criticized his program of using undercover deputies wearing black masks to stop and question motorists on a street notorious for drug dealing.
“We’re not trying to harass anybody,” Lamar said. “Frankly, if the ACLU is concerned about this, it underscores the fact that this is a good program.”
The ACLU’s maverick image is reflected throughout its eight-story building about a block from Times Square, the world’s capital of free expression. Some workers wear sandals. Others make pots of hot tea at their desks. Waiting for a slow elevator, one employee curses loudly, and no one seems to notice.
“We go to the heart of what a person does, not outward appearances,” Reitman said, “although we would object if someone considered wearing no clothes their means of personal expression.”
Even though it provokes hostility, the ACLU represents hope for many Americans.
“We’re a private organization that defends the Bill of Rights,” receptionist Cheryl Douglas tells a caller who is asking for legal help. She answers nearly 500 such calls every day. Many are referred to ACLU chapters, which are found in all 50 states.
On the wall near Douglas’ desk, a poster sums up the ACLU philosophy: “The Bill of Your Rights. Celebrate it. Defend it. Use it.”
[Update: Reitman died at age 91 in July, 2012, at his home in Palm Desert, CA]