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ACLU Thought Police?

THE ORGANIZATION’S RESPONSE TO THE ACQUITTAL OF GEORGE ZIMMERMAN PUTS IT ON A SLIPPERY SLOPE.

by Nat Hentoff

I have long expressed admiration for the American Civil Liberties Union for ardently defending the Constitution in our legislatures and courts, including the Supreme Court. Since September 2001 the ACLU has had a much tougher task thanks to the Bush-Cheney and Obama administrations. At times, however, I have strongly disagreed with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. Such was the case after a jury acquitted Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman—on grounds of self-defense—of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. Romero wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and said “it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil-rights violation or hate crime.”

Years ago I had a particularly long, fierce argument with Romero. I tried to explain that giving a convicted defendant additional prison time for a so-called hate crime violates the First Amendment because it imposes punishment of thoughts, not actions.

I brought James Madison into my argument with Romero. He was the Founding Father who introduced the Bill of Rights—including what came to be the First Amendment—to Congress. Madison had previously written to Thomas Jefferson after the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was passed: “We have in this country extinguished forever…making laws for the humanmind.” No American, Madison emphasized later, would be punished for his “thoughts.”

By urging that Zimmerman be prosecuted again, Romero disregards the Fifth Amendment, which unequivocally stipulates: “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy.”

Suddenly, though, Breitbart.com reported that Romero was not speaking for the entire ACLU. Laura Murphy, director of its Washington office, sent a letter to Attorney General Holder. She said: “We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmer man case. The ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.”

Ira Glasser, a true civil libertarian, was the ACLU’s executive director from 1978 to 2001. He said that Romero’s letter to Holder illustrated “the transformation of the ACLU from a civil liberties organization to a liberal bandwagon organization.” He added that “it’s just astonishing to me that a statement like that could go out without any understanding that they [ACLU] were violating their own policy.”

The ACLU wasn’t. Anthony Romero was. My position is: When, as allegedly happened to Zimmerman, someone is standing over you and banging your head hard again and again against the ground, you are entitled to defend yourself.

Romero’s letter prompted this response from my old friend Michael Meyers—a longtime battler for and teacher of civil rights: “No government, much less an angry community, is entitled to a verdict to their liking.…The ACLU is not the NAACP; the ACLU is the guardian of individual liberty, not a victims’ rights or racial grievance group.”

I applaud Laura Murphy for restoring the ACLU’s reputation by overriding Anthony Romero’s appeal to enlist the ACLU as an advocate of double jeopardy. But I cannot stomach the fact that the ACLU champions federal and state hate-crime laws, which violate the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments. On May 13, 2009, after the House of Representatives passed what became the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, I voiced my thoughts on RealClearPolitics.com. Colorado lawyer Robert J. Corry Jr. cemented them: “A government powerful enough to pick and choose which thoughts to prosecute is a government too powerful.”

I went on to ask: “Is there no non-politically correct ACLU lawyer or other staff worker or any one in the ACLU affiliates around the country or any dues-paying member outraged enough to demand of the ACLU’s ruling circle to at least disavow this corruption of the Constitution?”

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