NEW YORK — IN July 1992, Britain's Yorkshire Television obtained some internal Philip Morris Inc. documents that talked about financial grants to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Yorkshire program sparked retired journalist Morton Mintz, who had assumed that the ACLU did not have any financial interest when the ACLU opposed tobacco-ad restrictions. Instead, Mr. Mintz found that, over a six-year period, Philip Morris had given $500,000 to the ACLU foundation that had solicited the money.
The findings resulted in a press conference July 29 in which consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Sidney Wolfe, director of the Citizen's Health Research Group and Coalition on Smoking OR Health, called for the ACLU to stop accepting tobacco money. "We have been baffled by the seemingly inconsistent position of the ACLU on the issue of commercial speech," says Scott Ballin, a coalition member.
In the past, the ACLU has held press conferences to voice its opposition, based on First Amendment grounds, to tobacco-ad restrictions. In March 1989, for example, the ACLU issued a press release before Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma introduced a bill to restrict use of models, slogans, scenes, and colors in tobacco ads. The ACLU maintained that such a ban would be an unconstitutional regulation of speech.
But the ACLU has not opposed many health, safety, and consumer-protection statutes requiring federally mandated labeling and ad restrictions. In late July, for example, Congress held hearings on the need to regulate dietary supplements. The ACLU didn't testify against restrictions, maintaining that it is not opposed if the government can show a rational reason for limiting speech.
The health groups are using the ACLU's acceptance of tobacco money to try to discredit its stance. On July 28, the coalition sent letters to key members of Congress with a copy of Mintz's report.
The ACLU says it is defending free speech - there is no quid pro quo. Philip Gutis, a spokesman for the national office in New York City, says tobacco contributions were earmarked for a worker-rights project. "The ACLU is not for sale," he says.