' Nat Hentoff
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Jewish World Review March 3, 2000 / 26 Adar 1, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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The ACLU violates its principles --- yet again!

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS A FORMER New York and national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I well remember that whenever a dispute arose about what the ACLU should or shouldn't say, reference was made to a book containing the official policies of the organization. It is, so to speak, the bible of the ACLU.

One unequivocal policy, No. 229, is: "Any attempt, in any form, intended or calculated to influence a jury should be prohibited."

Yet, in the internationally publicized case of four New York City police officers accused of killing an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, the ACLU published a full-page ad in the New York Times that significantly added to the prejudicial pretrial publicity.

Before the police officers were tried, before they gave their testimony about what happened that night, the ACLU in that ad ran the words of the familiar Miranda warnings -- "You have the right to remain silent..."

And every word of the Miranda warnings was pierced by a bullet. (Forty-one bullets were fired at Amadou Diallo, 19 of which killed him.)

The text of the ad -- clearly prejudging the outcome of the trial -- said: "On February 4, 1999, the NYPD gave Amadou Diallo the right to remain silent. And they did it without ever saying a word.... The police killed an unarmed, innocent man. Also wounded that night was the constitutional right of every American to due process of law."

In that ad, the ACLU cavalierly denied those four officers due process -- which means fairness under our judicial system.

The cops had not yet testified -- so how did the ACLU conclude they had not identified themselves?

The ad ended, with unconscious irony, "Help us defend your rights. Support the ACLU."

When the trial of the cops was moved upstate from the Bronx, where Diallo was killed, to Albany because of the pervasive prejudicial pretrial publicity, the appellate division of the state court system cited the ACLU ad as a key reason for taking the trial out of New York City. Said the court's unanimous decision: "The ACLU advertisement... demonstrates that a long established organization formed for, among other reasons, the protection of the rights of the accused, has publicly prejudged the guilt of these defendants."

When lawyer Gerald Walpin, in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 17), criticized the ACLU for violating its principles, he was answered in the same paper (Feb. 2) by Ira Glasser, executive director of the national ACLU. Glasser's answer qualifies him for a privileged place among the directors of the Clinton spin machine.

Glasser said that the ACLU ad "doesn't mention any specific police officer, referring instead to the `Police Department.'"

Any 10-year-old who watches television would know who was about to be tried for the killing. So would any adult marginally interested in the news, from any source.

Glasser went on to say in his letter that the ACLU ad "doesn't mention the criminal charges, or the trial. Its focus is on calling attention to the latest unjustified killing of a person of color by excessive police force." How did he know -- before trial -- that the killing was "unjustified"?

The man killed is mentioned by name in the ad, as are the 41 bullets and the New York City Police Department. And the ACLU does more than imply the criminal charges by prejudging the guilt of the cops, who the ad says violated the due process rights of Amadou Diallo.

The ACLU ad does note that the defenders of the police describe what happened as "a tragic mistake," and that the indictment says it was homicide. The ad, says Glasser, does not take a position on that question. But the ad states unequivocally that "without ever saying a word, the police killed an unarmed, innocent man." That's a position -- one taken without any evidence, under oath, from either side. The ad ran five weeks before any evidence was taken at the trial.

In his letter to the Wall Street Journal, Glasser does not mention that officers of its affiliate, the New York Civil Liberties Union, were indignant because they were not told about the ad -- which they oppose -- before it ran.

On Feb. 25, a jury that included four African-Americans, one of whom was the forewoman, found the four cops not guilty of all charges -- no thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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01/24/00: Is suing church for sexual harassment an entanglement?
01/18/00: Will Miranda make it?
01/11/00: ACLU: Guilty until presumed innocent?
01/03/00: Liberty lion should be Man of Century
12/28/99: Drug tests that tear families apart
12/20/99: Get ready for decisive ruling on school vouchers for religious schools
12/13/99: Guess who is taking the lead in anti-slavery movement? Hint: It ain't Rev. Jesse
12/06/99: When we refuse to buy the 'otherly-challenged' excuse
11/29/99: Expelling 'Huck Finn'
11/22/99: Pleading the First
11/16/99: Goal of diversity needs rethinking?
11/08/99: Prosecution in darkness
11/02/99: The accuracy that's owed to readers
10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
10/18/99: The blue wall of silence
10/11/99: Bill Bradley's speech tax
10/04/99: 'Technicalities' that keep us free
09/27/99: Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation
09/20/99: ACLU better clean up its act
09/13/99: A professor of infanticide at Princeton
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08/23/99: Lawyerly ethics
08/16/99: To Get a Supreme Court Seat
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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA