Helping Amber Heard was just the beginning of the ACLU’s troubles

The lurid spectacle that represents Johnny Depp’s $50 million defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard hasn’t just tarnished his star and hers with allegations that he hit her and hurt her with a bottle or that she gave him part of his Fingers severed and she emptied bowels in the marital bed. (Both deny wrongdoing, and Heard has countersued for $100 million.) Amid this grotesqueness, it might be possible to overlook the ACLU’s bizarre involvement. But the civil rights organization’s pathetic role deserves closer scrutiny because it’s central to the case and because it exemplifies just how far the ACLU has gone astray in recent years.

The crux of Depp’s claim is that Heard ruined his acting career when she posted a comment in 2018 The Washington Post She described herself as “a public figure who represents domestic violence” — a thinly veiled reference to much-publicized assault allegations she made in court filings against Depp towards the end of their short-lived marriage. But Heard hadn’t pitched the idea to that post Office– had the ACLU. Terence Dougherty, the organization’s general counsel, testified via video deposition that the ACLU spearheaded the effort and served as Heard’s ghostwriter in exchange for their pledge to donate $3.5 million to the organization. The promised donation also earned Heard the ACLU title of “Women’s Rights Ambassador with a Focus on Gender-Based Violence.” When Heard didn’t pay, Doughtery said the ACLU collected $100,000 from Depp himself and another $500,000 from a fund linked to Elon Musk, whom Heard dated after the divorce.

The ACLU’s award of an ambassadorship and writing service to a scandal-plagued actress who is willing to pay seven-figure sums to transform herself into a victims’ advocate and further her acting career — Heard pushed for a release date that coincides with the release of her film coincided Aquaman– is part of the group’s ongoing decline. Once a bastion of free speech and high-spirited ideals, the ACLU has in many ways become a caricature of its former self.

Throughout the organization’s 100-year history, the ACLU’s unique value has been its apolitical willingness to stand up for all speech, regardless of the speaker’s identity, and to stand up for the accused, regardless of the allegation. This content-neutral stance is based on the premise that silence on either side will inevitably lead to a collective silence that is incompatible with the free market of ideas and the obligation to due process that are hallmarks of our democracy. Doing this often unpopular work stems from the belief that an informed and independently thinking citizenry requires the ability to represent, analyze and, yes, sometimes defend, opposing viewpoints.

In 1978, the ACLU successfully defended the right of neo-Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois, a community populated by Holocaust survivors. But in 2018, after the ACLU’s successful legal battle to allow white supremacists to march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in death and disaster, the ACLU issued new guidelines. Citing concerns about “limited resources” and “the potential impact on marginalized groups,” the organization warned its advocates to exercise extra caution when considering whether to represent groups whose “values ​​conflict with our values.”

By “our values,” the ACLU referred to the progressive causes it has championed with passion and great fundraising success since the election of Donald Trump: immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom, and racial justice. Should their lawyers decide to take on a client who holds opposing views, the organization instructed them to engage in a public campaign “denouncing those views in press statements, commentaries, social media and other available forums” and ” take part in countermeasures”. Protests.” Exactly how the loud disavowal of their clients is compatible with the duty of the lawyers to represent them diligently has not been explained. As a criminal defense attorney, I don’t think that’s possible.

I don’t look to the ACLU to validate my beliefs or those of my allies. On the contrary, I expect the ACLU to defend everyone, including my ideological enemies. In order to do this work, she cannot be beholden to any political party or ideology. But in 2018, the ACLU spent $800,000 on a campaign endorsement for Stacey Abrams during her run for governor in Georgia and $1 million on an attack campaign against Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings in the Supreme Court. In 2018, when the Trump administration proposed a new regulatory regime for schools to follow in Title IX on-campus sexual assault cases that offered greater protections to students defending themselves against these allegations, the ACLU reacted furiously tweet thread: “It encourages an unfair trial and unduly favors the accused.” (The following year, the ACLU declared its support for the new provisions of Title IX, which “provide fair trial requirements for live hearings, cross-examination, [and] Access to all evidence,” but it never removed or returned the tweets.)

The ACLU now appears largely unable or unwilling to uphold its core values. To be fair, the organization still champions some causes associated with conservatives and free speech absolutists, including the right to bear arms, protesting anti-Semites and parochial schools to encourage hiring on the basis of religion to discriminate. And yet loud since Trump’s election That New York Times, the organization’s annual budget has tripled and its legal team has doubled — but only four of its attorneys specialize in free speech issues, a number that hasn’t changed in a decade. Instead, the ACLU has expanded its services—and filled its coffers—as it takes partisan positions or addresses dubious causes. Meanwhile, when it comes to the hot topic of the culture war right in its wheelhouse, like the right to free, albeit hateful, speech on campus, the ACLU has largely kept itself on the sidelines.

Progressive causes are very close to my heart. I am a feminist and a staunch democrat. As a federal public defender-turned-law professor, I have spent my career bringing about change in a criminal justice system that is racist-torn and fundamentally unfair to those without status and financial resources. As someone who understands firsthand that the fundamental rights to free speech and due process only exist so long as competent attorneys are willing to vigorously defend extreme positions and people, I view the ACLU’s left turn with concern. It smacks of intolerance and partisanship, which is exactly what a civil rights organization tasked with defending the Bill of Rights is meant to combat.

I used to be a proud member of the ACLU with a badge. Today, when the donation emails and requests for reinstatement arrive in my mailbox, I throw them in the trash. Helping Amber Heard was just the beginning of the ACLU’s troubles

Jessica MacLeish

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