When the American Civil Liberties Union comes under attack, the salvos are often launched from the right. The ACLU, after all, is as enthusiastic about protecting the interests of feminists, gays, abortionist-rights campaigners and immigrants, legal or illegal, as it is uninterested in preventing the abuse of anti-abortion protesters, the censorship of media conservatives and the bullying of college evangelical groups for their opposition to homosexuality. On the right, the phrase "card-carrying member of the ACLU" is an insult; on the left, it is a credential.
But now comes an anti-ACLU barrage from an unusual source: a prominent liberal. Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, astute social critic and contributor to the Nation magazine and National Public Radio, is also a former member of the ACLU national board. She left the organization in disgust in 2006 and has recorded her grievances in "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU." It is a short, vehement book. Even the cover photo is vehement: It shows a densely packed herd of sheep -- stand-ins for the "easily herded" board members and donors who, Ms. Kaminer says, have allowed the ACLU to unravel under the leadership of Anthony Romero. The board and donors, she says, have willfully overlooked the "skullduggery" that has beset the national office since Mr. Romero's installation as executive director in 2002.
Only at the end of the book, in a section that seems almost tacked on, does Ms. Kaminer get to the core of the problem: that the many troubling decisions and strange moves undertaken during Mr. Romero's tenure actually reflect a decisive shift in the ACLU's sense of mission. "The ACLU," she writes, "began describing itself as a 'social justice organization,' and its non-partisan commitment to civil liberty shrank -- especially its commitment to free speech -- while its vision of equality expanded."
New organizations with a stronger commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly now do the jobs that the ACLU declines to do. These groups include the Alliance Defense Fund and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Ms. Kaminer sums it up: "The ACLU is becoming just anther liberal human-rights, social- justice advocate that reliably defends the rights of liberal speakers." The trajectory is a common one, affecting once-neutral organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, the Modern Language Association, Amnesty International and, now, the ACLU.