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Anthony D. Romero Keynote Address at the 2006 ACLU Membership Conference

Document Date: October 16, 2006

ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero


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ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero gave this keynote address on October 16, 2006, at the ACLU’s 2006 Membership Conference in Washington, D.C.

Good morning, welcome. Thanks to all of you for coming here today, thanks to all of you for supporting the American Civil Liberties Union at this critical moment in our nation’s history.

This organization – your ACLU – is the first responder in defense of the First Amendment; we are the first line of defense for the Constitution; we are the leader for the liberties and values that make our country strong and free, and this nation needs us more than ever!

Our duty is not always popular, but it is always right. From its start, the war on terror was marked by a battle against our civil liberties – outrages against the Constitution both large and small, attacks the Administration was confident would be overlooked in the anger and confusion that followed 9/11.

But some of us took notice. Some of us understood that we couldn’t defeat the enemies of freedom by making our country less free. We knew that in this new kind of war, we didn’t want a new kind of America. We knew the actions of our government – how we used our courts, our law enforcement officials and our technology – would be just as central to our security as our maneuvers on the battlefield.

And from the very beginning, the ACLU fought to show all of America’s allies and the world’s billion Muslims, that we could protect our principles and our people – without abandoning our traditions or our ideals.

At the outset, we battled alone. Our actions were opposed by millions of Americans and especially by politicians practiced in the arts of fear and smear. And although we battled alone, we battled on. We went to court. We went to Congress. We went the distance.

We fought for individuals who were harassed and kidnapped, who were imprisoned and tortured. We fought for millions of citizens whose homes and businesses, telephones, emails and library cards were all considered fair game by George Bush.

We sent notice that we would not sit by and see our Constitution or our laws trampled by leaders who confused security with repression and ignored the guarantees that define our democracy.

And, like the shopkeepers and farmers who mustered at Lexington and Concord after Paul Revere’s ride, a growing number of Americans heard our alarm – joined up and contributed to our fight for fundamental freedoms.

You proved your patriotism by fighting back against this son of a President, who had to be reminded that, in America, we have no hereditary kings.

And, together, we reminded him of the constitution’s supremacy, again and again:

When he made war on the separation of powers;

When he attacked the judiciary,

And when he threatened a women’s right to choose;

And when he used prejudice against gays and lesbians for political gain.

We stood up for freedom.

Look at what George Bush and his allies do:

They wage war on dissent – on American citizens who found their movements tracked, their organizations infiltrated, their confidences breached and their lives disrupted because they dared speak out against official injustice.

They use the President’s bully pulpit to cower the courts, to blur the thin black line between our liberties and the Administration’s attempts to gut them. They attack the separation of powers – using the war on terror to cudgel a quiescent Congress into sniveling submission.

They try to steam roll people who rise up against them, people like the ACLU “faces of surveillance” here today: author James Bamford, librarian Janet Nocek and student Konstanty Hordynski. But the government failed to shut them up, and today we applaud the courage of those who fought back against threats and intimidation.

Not content with treating American citizens as dangerous enemies, this Administration is using immigration law to keep out noncitizens with opposing views. Tariq Ramadan has been offered a teaching position at Notre Dame; he earned a professorship at Oxford; and he has been called one of the most important intellectuals of the 21st Century by Time Magazine.

Far from being a terrorist, Tariq Ramadan was appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to a commission charged with rooting out Islamic extremists in Great Britain.

His attempts to enter America have made him an ACLU client and I would be honored to introduce him to you today but I cannot. Tariq Ramadan has been refused a visa because he is seen as a threat to the American people.

This list is not exhaustive, not even close.

But it is not just the Bush Administration and Republicans who have done this to our America. We must also find fault with many Democrats, whose reticence, whose timidity, and whose complicity enabled the Bush Administration to damage core American values.

Against this backdrop, we must ask: What shoe will drop next? What domino will fall? What outrage will be detailed in the next book, the next presidential address or the next leaked article?

These truly are the times that try our souls.

But take a moment right now to imagine what these times would be like without you, the work you do and the work we do together as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Imagine an America without an ACLU.

Imagine a Bush Administration unchecked by the court cases we bring – and win – at every level of the American judiciary system.

Imagine a nation without the support we give courageous lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the facts and arguments and legislative language we provide.

And imagine where we would be if not for your willingness to march and write and organize and support civil liberties through the ACLU and on your own.

You – our proud card-carrying members – capture the spirit that our founders envisioned: free, courageous, outspoken, and ready to take on those who would take our liberties – regardless of how powerful they may be.

And, in your willingness to speak out, you have become the wall against which the wave of repression will surely break, and then recede.

Step back from the news cycle for a moment and look what’s really happening and see what we have accomplished:

Slowly but surely the courts are curtailing the worst of the obvious abuses;

Politicians from both parties are learning that one can support civil liberties and still be elected.

The Bush Administration has begun at least to acknowledge – some would say, “pay lip service to” – the separation of powers.

Public opinion is moving in our direction.

And, although we still have a long way to go, the ACLU has never been stronger or more determined.

Today, there are almost twice as many ACLU members as there were five years ago – I even gave Stephen Colbert his own card last spring.

Your support allowed us to fight and win the first round of the “hereditary kings” case – ACLU v. NSA. Judge Taylor delivered a stinging rebuke to George Bush, writing: “It was never the intent of the Framers to give the President such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”

The ACLU also filed a brief in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that military tribunals were unfair and illegal.

An ACLU lawsuit forced the government to turn over 100 thousand pages of US government documents detailing torture and abuse.

And on December 8th, ACLU attorneys will argue in federal court that Donald Rumsfeld and three uniformed military officers must be disciplined for the torture that took place under their watch. If Bush won’t hold Rumsfeld accountable, we will.

And we’re not just winning in court; we’re starting to change the landscape for civil liberties all across the land.

The ACLU has helped enact resolutions in more than 400 cities and towns, criticizing the Patriot Act for going too far. Blue states like Vermont joined red states like Montana in passing bipartisan resolutions calling on Congress to bring the Patriot Act back into line with the Constitution. These state legislatures and city councils understand that this isn’t about Democrats; this isn’t about Republicans, it’s about freedom, and fighting for what makes America majestic and unique.

More of our fellow citizens are thinking and feeling as we do.

Today, more than half of Americans now believe that torture is never justified; half believe that terror suspects should be tried in a civilian court; and almost two-thirds believe we should follow international agreements in the treatment of prisoners of war. [CBS News/New York Times Poll]

The number of people who believe the Bush Administration has gone too far in compromising our liberties doubled since 2003 – to 41 percent. [USA Today/Gallup Poll]

Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe the U.S. should abide by Geneva Convention. And more people now say that it’s better to free some terror suspects than to convict them on evidence a jury is never shown. [CBS News/New York Times Poll]

You may be surprised to hear me say this, but I’m not surprised by these numbers. I have always believed that we Americans are a just and a fair people – that they would ultimately reject Bush’s fear-mongering attempts to subvert the values that made this country a beacon to the world.

And you know what happens when polling numbers start to change – politicians start to change, too. Unlike a couple of years ago, we can see significant opposition to Administration efforts to codify torture and wiretapping. Not enough. But we clearly played a major role in stopping legislation that would have allowed unconstitutional wire-tapping.

When the lame duck Congress comes back next month, we’ll be there to see that this bad bill stays dead.

And next January, the ACLU will be back on Capitol Hill with the new Congress, making certain that they accept their responsibility to oversee the executive branch and demand real answers from an arrogant and unresponsive administration.

There is no doubt in my mind that your support of this organization and your own efforts at the state and local level have fundamentally changed the playing field. We are changing minds because you are reminding people what this nation should be.

But we’re not just holding our ground in the war on terror. We’re winning at other levels, too.

In a rural Pennsylvania school district, a courageous band of parents challenged efforts to force conservative Christianity into the classroom by mandating inclusion of “intelligent design” in biology texts. The ACLU helped them challenge this egregious breach of the boundary between church and state. We won a convincing courtroom victory. And that victory was confirmed again last fall, when voters threw out the school board members who tried to use science classes to force their religious beliefs on children.

Please, a big hand for Kitzmiller v. Dover plaintiffs and attorneys.

Conservatives have made denying a women’s reproductive freedom a cornerstone of their movement and a litmus test for their judges.

But here today is the woman who led a legal team against a New Hampshire law restricting abortion rights for women under 18 without regard to their health or safety. Louise Melling led our efforts in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and won a unanimous Supreme Court affirmation that abortion laws must protect women’s health and safety please, a big hand for Louise, of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

In Maryland, ACLU attorneys, including Ken Choe of the LGBT Project, David Rocah, and Art Spitzer, won a smashing victory for five same-sex couples denied the protections that marriage confers on heterosexual couples – rights like sponsoring a spouse for citizenship, or making end-of-life decisions together. Said the court: “When tradition is the guise under which prejudice or animosity hides, it is not a legitimate state interest.”

Please, a big hand for our team in Maryland.

But, as much progress as we are making, we can’t stop working now. Nothing we have accomplished has yet been set in stone. As our founder, Roger Baldwin, said no civil liberties victory ever remains won.

Last spring we won a major triumph in the Rasul case. This June we again won in Hamdan. But tomorrow the President is signing into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, an unbelievably unconstitutional end run around both of these Supreme Court decisions.

The bill essentially gives the president free rein to authorize torture and ignore the Geneva Convention. It gives retroactive immunity to government officials who authorized or ordered illegal acts of torture and abuse.

It takes away the judiciary’s power to monitor the executive – another blow to our system of checks and balances. This law eliminates habeas corpus for nearly all detainees, and allows hearsay evidence and permits convictions based on evidence that was literally beaten out of witnesses. Even Arlen Specter has said that without that correction, the bill will probably be found unconstitutional.

So we ask our Senators; if it was unconstitutional, why did you pass it?

This Administration is ruthless and relentless in its efforts to take power for themselves. We must be just as relentless – and remember that George Bush will do whatever it takes to take our victories away.

Earlier this year, the President reauthorized the Patriot Act. I am proud to say that the ACLU helped rally 40 Senators in opposition to it; our filibuster brought some significant modifications to the bill. Nonetheless, it’s a bad bill, and it angers me to see so many people taking refuge in the bill’s title, even as they run roughshod over the Constitution.

Outrageous as it is, the Patriot Act has done one thing right: It has propelled the real patriots in this country to run to the fore; patriots like you.

You, who have stood up to bullies and demagogues; you, who have fought for least sympathetic among us, to protect the most important American values; you, who have embraced principle when too many of our leaders were running away.

You will lead America back, making us again a beacon of justice and a nation of which we can be proud. With your help, in the next 12 months, we can kill the surveillance bill, win the court battle against illegal detentions, and protect the rights of every American to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Together, we of the ACLU have the power to make America a nation that, as we so often say, is both safe, and free.

And remember, in 2006, there is no more patriotic an act than being a member of the ACLU.

Thank you.

More information on the ACLU’s 2006 Membership Conference is online at /conference/.

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