ACLU v. ACLU | The Nation



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When Meyers began to publicly excoriate the ACLU leadership, those leaders moved quickly to confront him. Meyers says he got a call in July 2004 from Nadine Strossen, who told him, "We are asking people not to talk to the media." Meyers replied, "Well, you know, Nadine, you can't remind me of that because you know the policy is specific." (ACLU bylaws guarantee the right of board members to express their personal views.) Strossen: "I thought you'd say that." Meyers: "So why are you calling me?" In retrospect, the efforts by Strossen and others at the ACLU to restrain Meyers only served to galvanize and infuriate him, and contributed to the cycle of recrimination that ensued. In 2005 Meyers was voted off the board by colleagues who were furious at him, but he remains an energetic opponent of Romero, and his agile mind and sharp tongue were on display in recent polemics with Romero's supporters in the online Huffington Post.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com) is a contributing writer to The Nation.

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Kaminer, a freelance journalist in Boston, was Meyers's comrade in the trenches: A fourteen-page chronology she wrote in late 2004 for the board of directors of the ACLU's Massachusetts affiliate, which she then represented, articulates the case against Romero with clarity and precision. Kaminer's crusade against the leadership, and her frequent quotations in Strom's Times stories, enraged many of her colleagues on the board. Vivian Berger refers to Kaminer's "intransigent righteousness, humorlessness, sort of Madame Defarge quality." In an August 2004 posting on the ACLU's internal listserv, Berger pointedly inquired, "What exactly do you want us to do now, Wendy? Do you want [us] to ask Anthony to resign?" Replied Kaminer, "I want the ACLU leadership always to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to acknowledge frankly and fearlessly governance problems and policy misjudgments and address them effectively." Kaminer also demanded a "committee of inquiry" to investigate Romero's transgressions, which the board has never agreed to. Kaminer did not run for re-election in 2006, and no longer serves on the national board. Her rhetoric and behavior alienated quite a few members of the Massachusetts affiliate board, and Kaminer didn't have enough support to keep her seat. Still, she remains a formidable adversary of Romero, and her knowledge of the ACLU wars is encyclopedic.

By late 2005 the strife had, by and large, reached a standstill. And then two events occurred that significantly increased the level of acrimony and recrimination. The first came in the fall of that year, when the ACLU management unveiled new rules regarding employee confidentiality and technology use, rules that had to be signed by staff members at the national office. One clause read, "You agree that you will...not disclose ACLU Confidential Information to anyone outside the ACLU unless you have been explicitly authorized to do so by your Senior Staff Member or your Departmental Head." The new rules drew an anonymous (and outraged) letter from staff members, who complained that the agreement would "redefine 'confidentiality' in an overbroad and vague way, vesting in management the authority to define a wide variety of information as confidential." The letter also expressed the fear that employee e-mail would be monitored by management. "If we worked somewhere else we would be complaining to the ACLU," the letter declared.

Romero says the proposed rules were "a response to the fact that we had a consultant who walked away with an entire donor list and thought it was appropriate to send it to a newspaper reporter"--Strom of the Times. (Strom declined to discuss her reporting.) Romero explains that his staff had to understand that "what was on their computers and databases was not theirs but the ACLU's. There were certain lines that needed to be drawn." Would the proposed rules have entailed the monitoring of staff e-mails? "The idea that we would monitor our employees' e-mails is farfetched," Romero says. What's clear is that the proposed rules--which were ultimately shelved--provided ammunition to Romero's critics, who saw them as an attempt to crush internal dissent at the national office.

And then, last May, an eleven-member committee of the national board--whose members had been asked by the board to produce a report defining the "rights and responsibilities of Board members," with an emphasis on fiduciary responsibilities and confidentiality--presented their findings to their colleagues. One board member who saw an early draft of the report correctly predicted that it would provoke a "whole lot of screaming." Indeed, it's clear now that any attempt to circumscribe the free-speech rights of ACLU board members was destined to fail. The critics immediately assailed the report, focusing on passages like this one: "a [board member] may publicly disagree with an ACLU policy position, but may not criticize the ACLU Board or staff."

For the critics, that language amounted to both a "gag rule" and a legal framework for the impeachment of dissident board members. After the Times got hold of the story, and after an official in the New York State Attorney General's office informally warned the ACLU that the proposed rights and responsibilities language was unacceptable, Romero spoke out against it at the June 2006 board meeting. In the end, the rights and responsibilities report was also shelved. Six months later, Romero still seems bruised by the fisticuffs that erupted: "The board," he says, "was searching for solutions to what was a difficult situation. Previously held norms of board behavior and board decorum were not working any longer. There were [board] colleagues who preferred talking with the press rather than talking with their colleagues."

The critics are convinced that from the start Romero fully approved of the proposed "gag rule." Even some of Romero's most prominent supporters see some truth in that charge. Burt Neuborne says that he privately questioned Romero about it, and was told by him, "It was an effort to explain to people that when you are on a board, there is sometimes a duty not to leak information that can harm the organization's ability to perform its mission." Neuborne says he replied: "If you want to have a board orientation class, have a board orientation class, but don't have rules." He adds: "It was a misstep. It was a road that they never should have gone down." Would Romero have been content with the rights and responsibilities language if the board had approved it? "Anthony would have been perfectly comfortable with it, even if he didn't push it," Neuborne says.

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