Where Was the ACLU When Green Scare Legislation Passed Congress?

by Will Potter on November 28, 2006

in Terrorism Legislation

Where the hell was the ACLU? That seems to be the question on the minds of many, many activists– on email threads, radio programs and blog comments here on GreenIsTheNewRed.com. They’re angry that James Sensenbrenner, Tom Petri and other lawmakers rushed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act through the House on a voice vote as part of a suspension of the rules… but not too surprised. They’re angry that the mainstream press hasn’t batted an eye about this Green Scare bill… but not too surprised. And they’re angry that Democrats actually promoted the “eco-terrorism” bill, to win cheap political points and look tough on “terrorism”… but they’re not too surprised about that, either.

What seems to have really riled the activists that I’ve spoken with is that the ACLU, often seen as a Constitutional watchdog, a guardian of civil liberties that will protect the rights of civil rights activists right alongside the rights of the KKK, remained dead silent.

I’ve received a flood of emails asking about this, and I think it’s worth explaining and clarifying what, exactly, took place (or didn’t take place).

It has made a lot of folks wonder, with good reason: Are groups like the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Bar Association doing their own bit of scare-mongering, and blowing this bill out of proportion? Or did the ACLU really drop the ball?

Before I answer that question, you all should know that I once worked for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office on issues like the Patriot Act, airline passenger screening programs and sneak-and-peak search orders. In some ways that’s where I really cut my teeth on the intricacies of legislation related to national security and civil liberties, working with the best of the best on what I think are some of the most pressing issues of our time. I have a deep respect for the organization, and everyone that works there. I have consistently defended the sometimes-controversial ACLU when speaking with other reporters, activists and family back home in Texas. My opinion of how the ACLU handled, or didn’t handle, this legislation has been shaped by my positive experiences with the organization, and you should keep that in mind.

That being said, the ACLU dropped the ball.

Strange Bedfellows

First let’s take a look at Sensenbrenner’s comments on the House floor, which have stirred a lot of this debate:

I would just like to sum up that on October 30 the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the gentleman from Michigan, my ranking member, and myself, not opposing this legislation. They did ask for minor changes, but they did not express one concern about constitutionally protected first amendment rights being infringed upon or jeopardized in any way by this bill.

Now, if there ever was an organization that really goes all the way on one side in interpreting the first amendment as liberally as it can, it is the American Civil Liberties Union. My friend from Ohio, whom I have a great respect for, is even outside the definition of the first amendment that the ACLU has eloquently advanced in the halls of this Capitol for decades and will do so for decades to come.

This is a good bill. I think that all of the fears that the gentleman from Ohio has placed on the record are ill-founded by practically everybody who has looked through this bill, including the ACLU.

I mentioned Sensenbrenner’s comments in a wrap-up of the floor vote posted just hours after it happened, and it sent everything into a tailspin. The post has over 130 comments (a startling number for even the most popular websites). Some activists talked about organizing protests at ACLU offices. Others started email and phone trees to try to hold the organization accountable.

The ACLU Responds (Kinda)

The first wave of ACLU responses to activist emails stoked the fires even more. Here’s one (I received identical emails forwarded from over a dozen activists):

—– Original message —–
To: will@willpotter.com
Date: Tue, 14 Nov 2006 12:22:39 -0500
Subject: FW: Done Deal? AETA Passes

Dear Ms. XXX,

Thank you for your e-mail.

The ACLU Letter to Congress Urging Opposition to the Animal Enterprise Act, S. 1926 and H.R. 4239 (3/6/2006) can be read at http://www.aclu.org/freespeech/gen/25620leg20060306.html.

If you are not already an ACLU member, we encourage you to help support our aggressive work on the issues you care about. To join please visit
http://www.aclu.org/contribute/contribute.cfm or call 1-888-567-ACLU.

Once again, thank you for your interest in the ACLU.

D. Barber
Correspondence Manager, American Civil Liberties Union

More confusion. The email clearly says, and the link confirms, that the ACLU urged opposition to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Sensenbrenner lied! Right?

Reading Between the Lines

That ACLU document, from March, raised serious concerns about this vague and overly broad legislation and urged opposition. Another letter, sent to Sensenbrenner and Conyers on October 30, 2006 and cited on the House floor, said “The ACLU does not oppose this bill, but believes that these minor changes are necessary to make the bill less likely to chill or threaten freedom of speech.”

It’s completely accurate for the ACLU to say they did not support this legislation. Activists should take care to not put words in the ACLU’s mouth and say the organization supported the bill. At the same time, activists should know a little about Hill Speak. For an organization like the ACLU, the powerhouse on civil liberties and civil rights issues on Capitol Hill, saying “we don’t oppose” is tantamount to a third-base coach waving a runner home.

Why Did They Not Oppose?

Perhaps because there are so many other civil liberties issues demanding critical attention. Perhaps because corporate scare-mongering and green baiting has turned animal rights activists into political lepers.

Or perhaps history repeats itself. The ACLU has a long, venerable history of defending the civil liberties of even the most unsavory characters, including the KKK. To some, though, the organization has always been dogged by its darker days, when in 1940, during the Red Scare, the ACLU formally barred communists from leadership or staff positions. Meanwhile, the National Lawyers Guild took a beating for refusing to name names and purge its members who also belonged to communist organizations, but stood its ground.

This time around, the National Lawyers Guild was out front opposing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the Green Scare. And this time around, the silence of the ACLU spoke volumes.

Industry groups heard it loud and clear. The ACLU and the Humane Society were both involved in this bill in its early stages. They both raised nearly identical sets of concerns. HSUS came out and opposed (albeit not publicly until the bill had already passed the Senate). The ACLU did not.

Corporations seized on that opportunity to steal home, and never looked back. Industry groups now spout off like they’ve been card-carrying members of the ACLU all along.In The Scientist, a vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an industry group behind the bill, posted this comment:

Facts Matter!
by Mary Hanley, Exec. VP, NABR

[Comment posted 2006-11-16 21:57:54]
Finally, a story that gets it right. Apparently many reporters have not actually read the bill language but have accepted without question the misleading propaganda that HSUS and other animal activist groups have perpetuated about its First Amendment protections. Knowing full well that the preeminent civil rights organization, the ACLU did not oppose the AETA, they continued to lobby against the bill and rally their followers to do the same, actions that discredit their own cause.

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