The ACLU’s Decision Making Process


An anonymous public-defender commentator to my last post wrote:

So, long story short, I contact the local ACLU chapter to see if they were interested in an amicus brief or in helping me appeal the the U.S. Supreme Court. I was shocked to hear that the NCLU could not assist me as they believed that the due process rights of students to attend school trumped my client’s right to call people offensive names in school. Not only that, but the NCLU was even sponsoring anti-bullying legislation and for that reason would be also unable to assist.

In other words, what I thought of as the great defender of free speech was one of the parties eagerly chipping away at it, unconcerned with the collateral damage.

That sounds to me like a really bad call on the part of the NCLU. Preventing bullying is not really part of ACLU’s brief. Sponsoring legislation that gives the government more power to interfere in people’s lives (as does all criminal legislation) is the opposite of what the ACLU should be doing. (For those watching at home:

I may be able to cast some light on how such decisions get made, as I have attended ACLU legal committee meetings. Here in Houston the ACLU legal committee met (it’s been a couple of years since I was involved) monthly. Typically eight or ten lawyers would sit around a table, someone would dump a bunch of — maybe 50 to 100 — letters soliciting ACLU help on the table, and the lawyers will go through the letters looking for anything that they might be able to help with. More than one lawyer would read each letter. Many of the letters asked for help that wasn’t within ACLU’s mission, but that the lawyers themselves could help with; the lawyers would follow up on those individually. A few asked for help that was within ACLU’s mission; individual lawyers would follow up on those as well on behalf of the organization. It was all driven by what the lawyers felt like doing; there was very little adult supervision.

So, anonymous PD, the decision not to help you, as well as the atrocious decision for ACLU Nebraska to support anti-bullying legislation, were likely not made in thoughtful deliberation by a learned committee according to some ACLU playbook, but rather by a volunteer lawyer making gut decisions. That the ACLU in your state has gone so wrong is not a result of the organization’s philosophy but of its organization. There is only one solution: become involved.


0 responses to “The ACLU’s Decision Making Process”

  1. “Many of the letters asked for help that wasn’t within ACLU’s mission, but that the lawyers themselves could help with; the lawyers would follow up on those individually.”

    This practice has since been altered because some attorneys allegedly were skimming cases that WERE within the ACLU’s purview, and also because it was an odd thing for someone to privately solicit legal help from ACLU and then have a private lawyer contacting them about their case soliciting their personal legal business. IANAL and I don’t know if the issue was that it formally violated any Bar rule, but I know it was seen as a problem and a potential conflict of interest and the practice has been rescinded in the last year or so. best,

  2. Thanks for the comment. As far as I ever knew, the lawyers who were following up individually were doing so pro bono. I don’t recall ever seeing a letter to the ACLU that led me to believe that the writer could hire counsel to solve the problem.

    I would agree that, if some lawyers were looking to make a buck off of those letters, it would be extremely problematic.

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