The new president of the American Civil Liberties Union comes straight outta the tolerant, diversity-loving, mean streets of Park Slope. Last week, Susan Herman, who is also a professor at Brooklyn Law School in Downtown, took over the organization that conservatives love to hate. But why do they hate the ACLU? The Brooklyn Paper’s Mike McLaughlin rang up Herman to get some answers.
The Brooklyn Paper: Are you actually a card-carrying member of the ACLU?
Herman: I actually do have a card that I carry, because it’s my pass to get into the office — in addition to being a statement of deeply held principals.
The Brooklyn Paper: What got you so riled that you joined the group?
Herman: My first introduction to working with the ACLU was with a law professor. We had six students who lived in Belle Terre [Long Island]. They tried to get beach permits at the town beach, but couldn’t because they were considered illegal residents. The town said that no more than two adults not related by blood, marriage or adoption could live together. We took it to the Supreme Court and unfortunately we lost. But how can the government say who you can live with?
The Brooklyn Paper: Here you are sticking up for six college kids who want to hang out that beach and yet, for some people, the ACLU is a four-letter word. How do you reconcile that?
Herman: Our basic idea is that everyone’s rights and liberties are set by the Constitution even if the majority wants to pass a law that goes against them. So sometimes we go up against laws that are popular. … Some people say the ACLU is anti-religion, but nothing could be further from the truth. We disagree with the government sponsoring any religion. We’re trying to maintain freedom for people to exercise what faith they want.
The Brooklyn Paper: So why doesn’t the ACLU resonate more with those Republicans who say the government has to get off the backs of America’s rugged individualists?
Herman: Well, many libertarians and people who don’t believe in big government agree with us on some issues. For instance, [Libertarian presidential nominee] Bob Barr is with us on unreasonable search and seizure. … Where we may part company with the rugged individualists is on the issue of civil rights. We agree the government should not make decisions for us, but we need the government to play an active role in upholding our civil rights that guarantee our equality.
The Brooklyn Paper: Do you ever feel the urge to trample anyone’s civil rights, like a telemarketer who calls during dinner?
Herman: [Laughing] Oh, absolutely, I felt the urge. We all have these instincts. We all want things to go our way, but we bound ourselves in society to respect the views of others. So sometimes I have to listen to things I don’t want.
©2008 Community News Group
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