Controversy nothing new to feisty ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union defines its role as protecting the right of citizens to disagree with government. But as a result, the ACLU has found that many Americans disagree with the group itself.

One would have thought in recent days that the four letters ACLU spell a dirty word. George Bush says the American Civil Liberties Union represents viewpoints well outside the American mainstream. He implies that the organization's vision of America - embraced by Michael Dukakis - will lead the country down the road to ruination.

In the candidates' debate Sept. 25, Vice-President Bush lambasted his Democratic rival for being a ``card-carrying member of the ACLU.''

``We chose to focus on it because it points up real differences between the candidates,'' says Mark Goodin, a spokesman for the Bush campaign. ``It is not an effort to disparage the ACLU. The beef is not with the ACLU, the beef is with its liberal, activist, far-left philosophy, its bizarre positions.''

Governor Dukakis responded after the debate by issuing a list of positions on which he disagrees with the civil liberties union.

But then, the right to disagree - of citizens with their government, and of the organization's members with one another - has been part of the ACLU's bedrock since its inception in 1920.

The 250,000-member organization has defended the rights of the small and the great and been embroiled in some of the most bitter controversies of modern times.

But the ACLU is far from a monolith. It is comprised of people from many ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. At one time the organization advanced in its literature that one of the criteria for membership was agreement on 75 percent of its positions.

``What you have is an organization that includes a national headquarters, a lot of local chapters, and a lot of tugging and fighting,'' says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``You will find chapters, sometimes boards within chapters, disagreeing vigorously and sometimes violently.''

A major walkout of members took place in 1977, when the organization defended the right of the American Nazi Party to march through Skokie, Ill., a mostly Jewish suburb of Chicago.

``Throughout its history, the ACLU has defended rights. But just because you defend a person's right does not mean you should be tarred with the substance of their cause,'' says Alan Reitman, associate director of the ACLU. ``When we defend the right of an individual, you don't automatically agree with his point of view.''

Defending Oliver North

Many people who threw up their hands because of the Nazi defense came back to the fold a year later, admitting that they were emotionally too close to the situation, Mr. Reitman says. He believes that emotionally held opinions cloud many persons' views of constitutional rights and are at the core of criticism against the ACLU.

Prof. A.E. (Dick) Howard, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of Virginia, agrees. He says the characterization of the ACLU as a group of ranting radicals of the left is ``unfair.''

``Generally, they take a robust view of what the Bill of Rights is all about, which is well within the mainstream as understood by the Supreme Court.''

Recently, they have come to the defense of Oliver North (saying his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination were violated by the Iran-contra hearings) and former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger (saying lobbying activities are protected by the First Amendment).

They have taken cases on behalf of the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, and ``assorted segregationists.'' They also defended civil-rights workers when Martin Luther King Jr. conducted his crusade against segregation, and opposed the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

`Writing law from the bench'

But critics say their argument is with ACLU positions that seek to make public policy. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh recently said he resigned from the organization in the 1960s because of its ``political agenda.''

Mr. Goodin at the Bush campaign says the ACLU wants judges appointed who will ``write law from the bench'' instead of interpreting statutes. He notes, for example, that the ACLU opposed Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court last year. Judge Bork said he was opposed to judicial ``activism.''

The ACLU acknowledges that it broke with tradition when it opposed the Bork nomination. ACLU president Norman Dorsen, a New York University law professor, said at the time that Bork was a ``radical'' whose judicial philosophy ``threatened'' protection of individual rights.

``Any organization trying to exert influence wants judges to overturn law to make policy,'' Mr. Ornstein says. ```Strict constructionism' is a politically expedient term. I see just as much strain to push conservative judicial activism as liberal activism.''

During the presidential debate, Bush denounced the ACLU's opposition to tax exemptions for churches - notably, the Roman Catholic Church. But in his statement the next day, Dukakis also stated disagreement with the ACLU's position that the exemption is a government subsidy that breaches the Constitution's separation of church and state.

Tracing ACLU's roots The American Civil Liberties Union defines its job as preserving the American system of government by defending the libertarian principle of individual rights against the democratic principle of majority rule. Sixty staff lawyers and 2,000 volunteers preside over a caseload of 6,000. Over the years they have defended the rights of the famous and the infamous. 1920 During the first year ACLU fights deportation of aliens considered to have radical beliefs, represents trade unions attempting to organize, and defends conscientious objectors to World War I. 1925 Clarence Darrow heads up ACLU defense team in Scopes ``monkey trial,'' which pits the theory of evolution vs. creationism. The trial led to the removal of religious indoctrination from schools. 1927 ACLU defends Sacco and Vanzetti, saying they are prosecuted for anarchist views. The two men are electrocuted by the state of Massachusetts for murder committed in a holdup seven years before. 1931 Defends nine black men accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Ala. 1933 ACLU gets James Joyce's ``Ulysses'' admitted into US in historic anticensorship case. 1942 The ACLU defends the 112,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, evacuated by the US government and detained in internment camps after Pearl Harbor. 1950 ACLU begins a battle during the cold war against loyalty oaths - statements required by Congress and many state legislatures in which citizens swore they were not communists or members of subversive groups as prerequisite for employment. 1954 ACLU participates in Brown v. Board of Education. This Supreme Court decision begins desegregation of American schools. 1963 ACLU supports case of Clarence Earl Gideon, in which the Supreme Court rules that right to counsel for indigents is guaranteed by the US Constitution. 1964 ACLU efforts result in ``one man, one vote'' decision from Supreme Court, which strengthens fight for equal access to ballot box in the Southern US. 1973 ACLU handles second case ending with Supreme Court ruling that right to privacy includes a woman's decision to have an abortion. 1988 ACLU is pressing Congress, as they did after Watergate, for a law limiting US government covert operations, in response to the Iran-contra scandal.

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