IN a campaign that tosses around the tag ``liberal,'' it is no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union has been pulled into the ring. Since the earliest days of the Reagan administration, the ACLU has provided a handy foil for an emergent New Right. Edwin Meese once called the group a ``criminals' lobby.''
And now Mr. Reagan's Republican heir apparent is trying to pin the ACLU badge on his opponent. Michael Dukakis, concerned about voter reaction, is trying to dodge the label.
The ACLU, after all, has not tried to set its path according to the mainstream of American public opinion. Sixty-eight years ago it was defending World War I conscientious objectors. Its concern for meticulous attention to the rights of the accused sometimes infuriates law enforcement officials. It does, in fact, hold that tax exemption for churches contradicts the Constitution's establishment-of-religion clause.
Sometimes the organization's stands contradict common sense. Are metal detectors at airports violations of our freedom from unreasonable searches, as the ACLU has argued, or very reasonable attempts to safeguard the public?
The ACLU, officially, sees no gray areas in these matters. But it arrives at positions often after arduous internal dispute. Many of its 250,000 members do not necessarily agree with the positions taken. Mr. Dukakis has opposed the ACLU on a number of issues.
It's worth remembering, too, that in another sense the ACLU is squarely in the mainstream of American political culture. Where else but in a truly free society could such an organization thrive?
Support for the ACLU is perhaps a badge of liberal-mindedness. It is also evidence of concern for the rights of individuals - including very unpopular people. But it shouldn't be a negative, especially if a candidate says where he differs with the organization's official positions.