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Liberty's Defending Angel

ACLU president Nadine Strossen opens windows for all kinds of views.

September-October 2003

Her noble passion may have sprung from a frustrated appetite: even by Harvard standards, Nadine Strossen '72, J.D. '75, is a voracious reader. "The most important thing in my childhood was books. I was an absolute bookworm," she recalls. "I would have spent my entire life doing nothing but reading"—even using a flashlight to read under the covers in bed. But Strossen's intellectual curiosity still went unsatisfied. The public library in Hopkins, Minnesota, had only two rooms open to those under 18, and after reading everything in the school library, Strossen reread the volumes in those two rooms over and over. In sixth grade her favorite book was Les Misérables; Strossen says it was "miraculously" shelved in the young people's section, which had, for baffling reasons, banished even the Nancy Drew mysteries. "If I'd been really resourceful, I would have called the ACLU to represent me," she says. "I became a civil libertarian because of a series of deprivations."

The president of the American Civil Liberties Union since 1991, Strossen flies more than 200,000 miles a year to help ensure that others are not cut off from intellectual nourishment, as she was, or from their personal freedoms. She's a dynamic woman who shifts up a gear when she talks about civil liberties. "There has been an extraordinary surge in ACLU membership [now above 400,000] since September 11," she says. "The bad news is that our organization is doing so well because civil liberties are doing so badly. Since 9/11, I can't tell you how often I've gotten up at 3 a.m. after going to bed at midnight. There's so much on my mind."

Though they differ sharply on many issues, Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, LL.B. '60, can also laugh together, and are friendly enough for Strossen to call him "Nino."
Photograph courtesy of Nadine Strossen

Founded in 1920 by a group that included Roger Baldwin, A.B. 1905, Crystal Eastman, and others, the ACLU is devoted to protecting the freedoms and liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and statutory law, especially against incursions by the government. Strossen is only its sixth president. With "spectacular CEO" Anthony Romero handling day-to-day administration and fundraising, Strossen acts as the ACLU's chief spokesperson, spending a lot of time on the college lecture circuit and media appearances. "I took the freest job in an organization that defends freedom!" she exults.

In financial terms, Strossen calls herself "unsuccessful" because she earns far less than the median income of her peers. (The ACLU presidency is an unpaid position, and she teaches at New York Law School, where her courses in constitutional law and international human rights overlap nicely with civil liberties work.) "I value freedom more than money," she says. In any case, Strossen's alma mater doesn't view her as a slacker: at "Celebration 50: Fifty Years of Women Graduates," held at the Law School in May, she led off a panel of "advice from famous folk."

"In terms of satisfaction with what I'm doing, I feel so lucky—I'm able to focus my education and skills on what matters to me the most: human freedom," she says. "Everything I'm good at, I've been able to use." For example, Strossen was a champion high-school debater. Today she asks, "Who would ever have thought I'd go on TV and debate the Attorney General [Edward Meese] of the United States?" (The current Attorney General, John Ashcroft, has declined her invitations to debate.)

 

Raised a Unitarian, she is the daughter of Sylvia and Woodrow Strossen. Her half-Jewish German father, who changed his name to honor Woodrow Wilson when he immigrated to America, was raised a Lutheran. "He didn't know he was a Jew until the Nazis told him he was," she says. He had enough Jewish blood to be condemned by Third Reich standards, and was sent to Buchenwald, where he nearly died of pleurisy. The camp was liberated by Allies one day before he was scheduled for forced sterilization, so, as Strossen likes to observe, "I literally owe my life to the U.S. military."

From the beginning she tended to engage things in an extreme way, "too extreme," she says, for a Midwestern school system that wanted to form her into a "nice, well-rounded" girl. She played piano for years and was a very serious figure skater. But the grade-school curriculum wasn't challenging enough, which frustrated Strossen, and her parents didn't want her to skip a grade, since she would then lag her classmates in social maturity. "I feel my youth was somewhat wasted," she says. "I craved education and travel."

At Hopkins High School, the debate team had an inspiring coach, and Strossen "threw herself into debate, took over everything, worked after class and every weekend, went to the University [of Minnesota] Law Library to do legal research."

In college, Strossen was no longer held back intellectually, and "My eyes were immediately opened," she says. "Harvard was an entrée into the big world—it literally opened doors." She got involved in the women's, antiwar, and reproductive freedom movements, and worked as a legal secretary in Boston. Harvard Law School, however, was "an unpleasant experience"—all Strossen's professors were male, and though "I did raise my hand a lot," she says, she was rarely called on. "I felt I wasn't noticed as an individual." (Eli Noam '70, Ph.D.-J.D. '75, did notice her individuality; Strossen's husband of 23 years, he is a professor of economics and finance at Columbia's Graduate School of Business. Meeting Noam, Strossen says, "was, by far, the best aspect of the Law School.") She thrived afield, working with the Legal Aid Bureau and the Harvard Voluntary Defenders—and, as soon as she learned of its existence, joined the ACLU.

Strossen says she didn't strive very hard for grades in law school. When someone called to ask her to join the Harvard Law Review, "I thought he was joking," she says. "I thought he was calling to invite me to a party. I've never had a trajectory toward any kind of conventional success."

Instead her path has been toward freedom of expression, for herself and others. Though Strossen's feminist credentials are impeccable, her 1995 book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights takes on feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who have sought to stifle forms of sexual expression.

True to her principles, Strossen leads an unrepressed, expansive life. She loves views—trees, windows, open spaces, for example—and has traveled widely with Noam, a commercially rated pilot, in their small plane. They live near Columbia University (there is also a country place upstate) and, whenever possible, Strossen takes in a vista of Riverside Park from the windows. She loves to sing, and has even done cabaret performances in Manhattan. "I can scarcely carry a tune," she says, "but I sing because I have stage presence and chutzpah."

 

In today's political context, "Every right is under assault," Strossen says, "and the major media are not doing a good job of giving people the facts—such as what is in the PATRIOT I and PATRIOT II Acts." After a keynote address on terrorism to a professional association of political scientists, she received several e-mails from professors who "had no idea that our government was practicing secret arrests, detentions, and deportations." Strossen also describes little-known monitoring technologies like ECHELON, an international surveillance system that intercepts and processes many forms of electronic communication: "By collaborating with other nations," she explains, "they're doing an end run around the U.S. Constitution."

In today's fearful climate, "By slapping the label 'anti-terrorism' on a new law, you get people automatically supporting it," Strossen says. "In October 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act passed the Senate 99-1, with almost no hearings or debate. [Wisconsin Senator] Russ Feingold [J.D. '79] really deserves a 'profile in courage' for casting the one vote against it. A number of legislators have since repudiated their votes—like [Alaska congressman] Don Young, one of the Republican leaders, who called the PATRIOT Act 'the worst piece of legislation we have ever passed.'"

Although many civil libertarians focus their fury on President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft, Strossen points out that it's the "natural tendency of the executive branch of government to pull out all the stops to protect public safety." After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, for example, President Clinton and his Attorney General, Janet Reno, pushed through the 1996 anti-terrorism bill that "effectively gutted habeas corpus, created 50 new capital crimes, and made real inroads on individual privacy. Many of the provisions we had defeated in 1996 were pulled off the shelf and put in the USA PATRIOT Act."

The worst measures, Strossen believes, are those that give a false sense of security. "Obviously, the government completely failed to protect us on 9/11," Strossen says. "But instead of analyzing the causes of that failure, a lot of leaders quickly started scapegoating—'The problem is that we have too much freedom.' Yet the consensus is that the problem had nothing to do with a lack of government power to do surveillance. There were bureaucratic snags, inadequate computing power—it was not a lack of power to gather information, but a need to analyze and act on the information the government already had."

Measures like stronger cockpit doors, sky marshals, and matching luggage to passenger lists are effective against terrorism and minimally intrusive on civil liberties. "Would you be willing to give up freedom for security?" she asks. "Well, I need to be alive to experience liberty. But what rational person would be willing to give up freedom without gaining any more security?"

Ever since reading Dickens as a child, Strossen has found injustice heartbreaking. She belongs to many other human rights organizations. "They defend particular groups or particular rights," she explains. "But the ACLU defends all fundamental freedoms for all people. Ideologically, it's a nonpartisan organization, and that's one reason we are so effective. There's almost no legislator with a 0 percent or a 100 percent ACLU rating. On a given issue we'll work with anyone, even if we hate their other ideas. Even John Ashcroft is good on privacy rights—for gun owners! There's plenty to criticize, but it's dangerous to demonize."

Strossen observes that "extreme left-and right-wingers are highly critical of us." The leftist National Lawyers Guild, for example, has denounced the ACLU for its "poisonous even-handedness." The ACLU has defended civil liberties for Nazis, Oliver North, anti-abortion activists, the KKK, and the Christian Coalition. Conservative Republican Bob Barr of Georgia was a paid ACLU consultant on privacy issues, an area in which former House Republican majority leader Dick Armey of Texas "has been spectacular," Strossen says. "The ACLU is in one sense the most conservative organization in the country—we are conserving the founders' ideals. Getting government off the backs of the people is the whole idea of liberty."

In a sense, Strossen is still doing what she has always done. She's now an adult version of the 15-year-old girl who wrote a letter to the editor defending a schoolteacher who had been disciplined for showing slides of Vietnam ("such striking images") with what she recalls as pro-peace folk music playing in the background. The newspaper favored firing the teacher. "It's such a joy to be aware of the kinds of violations of liberty I saw as a kid," she says, "and know I can do something about them."

~Craig Lambert