Former ACLU president stresses civil rights activism with future lawyers

Published: November 10th, 2008

Category: Feature, News

Nadine Strossen

Former president of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen spoke to a classroom of students about civil rights last Tuesday. (UF Law/ Chen Wang)

Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, urged students to get involved in fighting for civil rights on Tuesday.

Strossen, brought to the UF Levin College of Law by the American Constitution Society, spoke to a crowd of about 50 in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom.

Strosssen served as the president of the ACLU from 1991 until this October.

She spoke about a range of timely topics, including the presidential election and the amendments that passed that made gay marriage illegal in state constitutions.

Both Florida and California passed such amendments. Strossen, a law professor at New York Law School, said her students were shocked when the amendments passed.

“I saw that stunned and shocked reaction very positively, actually,” she said. “I think very soon we’re going to be entering a generational change. ‘It’s inconceivable; how could you possibly discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation? How could you possibly deny marriage equality on the bases of sexual orientation?’ is the attitude my students have.”

The ACLU has already challenged the passing of the amendment, proposition 8, in California. Strossen said that there is case law that says any constitutional amendment that deals with human rights has to be passed by the state legislature, which this proposition was not, before it can be placed on the ballot.

Still, Strossen thinks homosexuals will one day have the same marriage rights as others.

“Not at all to say it’s not a severe setback, but if you put it in historic perspective, it’s just a blip,” Strossen said. “We’re going to get there, and we’re going to get there so much more quickly than would’ve been imaginable when I was a law student.”

Strossen also spoke about a high-profile, close-to-home case that the ACLU recently won. In Ponce de Leon, Florida, in the panhandle, Heather Gillman was told she could not wear a shirt with a rainbow on it to symbolize gay pride.

“The school was tolerating every other kind of t-shirt, including Ku Klux Klan t-shirts,” Strossen said. “And by the way, the ACLU would defend the right to have that message as well. You counter speech that you don’t like not with suppression but with counter speech.”

The principal of the high school refused to settle the case. When the judge in the case was baffled as to why Gillman could not wear the shirt, the principal explained that it was disruptive. The judge asked why it was disruptive.

“The principal said, ‘Because it makes students think about sex,’” Strossen said. “Right, as if they’re not thinking about sex every minute of every day anyway.”

Since then, Gillman has gotten more involved in civil rights issues. Before the lawsuit, Gillman was not planning on attending college.

“This is why our clients are so inspiring to me,” Strossen said. “For all of us as lawyers, we have a professional responsibility, we have professional knowledge, we’ve got a degree, we’ve got our license. It’s one thing for us to advocate for civil liberties, but for somebody else who is not educated in it, who makes herself a pariah in her community, who in this case is bucking the administration, the principal and peer pressure, hats off. Those are my heroes and heroines.”

The ACLU has prepared a list of civil rights issues for president-elect Barack Obama to consider when he takes office, Strossen said. But she warned that Obama won’t fix all the problems with civil rights over night.

“Civil liberties violations as well as civil liberties support crosses every ideological spectrum,” Strossen said. “I think it’s very important for us to realize that a change in presidential administration is not necessarily going to change some of the violations that have been put in place over the last eight years.”

Strossen emphasized that the ACLU is a non-partisan organization and that both sides have been bad on civil rights issues in recent history. She brought up the USA PATRIOT Act and FISA, which allowed warrantless wiretapping, as examples.

Only one member of the U.S. Senate, Senator Russ Feingold, voted against the PATRIOT Act.

But Strossen realizes that the ACLU and politicians have different goals. She understands that the economy is much more important to most Americans than civil rights issues.

“I think we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished and how quickly it can be accomplished, especially at a time when there are so many more urgent priorities for most people,” she said.

Strossen took questions after speaking, and one student asked if lawyers should take the gay marriage battle to the United States Supreme Court. Strossen said lawyers who work on gay rights issues are staying away from this battleground.

“If you go there, yes you have a chance that in one fell swoop they’ll grant marriage equality and fairness to everybody,” she said. “But you also have the chance that the opposite will happen, and it’s much harder to overturn bad precedent than to wait a while and see if things improve.”

Strossen used Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (which struck down a sodomy law) to argue that the rights granted in the Constitution are much broader than the specifically enumerated ones.

“He said if those who wrote our Constitution had an idea on a fixed concept of fundamental rights, they could’ve said that,” Strossen said. “They had the linguistic ability to do that. Instead, when they choose an open-ended phrase such as due process of law and equal protection of the law, they were making a deliberate choice.”

Despite the gay marriage amendments passing, the ACLU and other groups will fight until all citizens have equal rights, Strossen said.

“Yes it was a setback, but it was only a temporary setback. Activists never take no for an answer; we never stop,” Strossen said.