When I undertook a study of the ACLU, I had no idea that the politics surrounding my investigation would prove to be as revealing as the research itself. Maybe more so.

My first taste of the politics of the ACLU came during an interview with Aryeh Neier, past executive director of the ACLU. The interview lasted about 15 minutes. He ordered me out of his office, complaining that he didn’t like the nature of my questions. I was asking him to explain discrepancies in ACLU policies. That was something I shouldn’t have done. Live and learn.

Other ACLU officials proved to be equally sensitive. While doing research at the national headquarters in New York City, I incurred the wrath of employees when I admitted that I was looking for reasons why policy positions had been changed on so many issues. They demanded examples. I mentioned the ACLU’s adamant opposition to the ERA for some 30 years before the elevation of its consciousness in 1970. They blasted me for telling untruths. When shown the evidence, they showered me with a stern lecture on how I ought to handle the incendiary findings. I thanked them for respecting my freedom of inquiry and making me feel right at home.

It gets better. When I told Alan Reitman, Associate Director of the ACLU, that I was planning to write a book on the organization, he asked me to supply him with an outline and sample chapter so that he could assess whether he might be of some assistance to me in getting the book published. The ACLU was thinking about commissioning someone to write a book on its history anyhow, so if what I was doing fit in with what they wanted, presto—they’d find a publisher. Just think, I could have been the ACLU’s house author!

The squeeze was on. My previous access to the minutes of the board-of-directors meetings was now off limits. Only capsule summaries could be seen. Worse still was the farce surrounding my access to the FBI files on the Union.

A copy of the FBI files on the ACLU is available at the headquarters of both organizations. I thought it would be easier to access the files from the ACLU. I was wrong. Indeed, while the files were available in the FBI’s reading room, senior ACLU officials were still debating whether other board members—never mind the public—should be granted access. When I finally did get a chance to see the ACLU’s holdings of the FBI files (it took a few years), my research was subject to restrictions that the FBI refused to levy. So much for principle, yet again.

The politics of publishing was next. I started my quest for a publisher after completing the introductory chapter. Over 18 months I received 18 rejections, some of them saying, “While I personally agree with your perception of the ACLU’s record . . . “My favorite was the one which agreed wholeheartedly with my analysis but confessed that the book was “too charged an attack on the organization for inclusion on my list.” Some editors told me over the phone that trying to get a critical work on the ACLU published was next to impossible. Had it not been for Aaron Wildavsky, who referred me to Irving Louis Horowitz at Transaction, the book probably wouldn’t have been published.

Since the book has been released, the ACLU has tried to ignore it. Radio talk-show hosts in five cities have tried unsuccessfully to get an ACLU official to debate me on the air. A live debate did take place, however, in Pittsburgh.

At first I thought there wouldn’t be a debate. It took nine months of prodding before James Lieber, the head of the ACLU in Pittsburgh, agreed to a debate. The reason for the delay had something to do with the response of several local ACLU board members to the suggested debate. They advised Lieber not to debate me. He finally consented to the debate anyway.

The fun began before the debate got started. When one ACLU staff member saw copies of my book on display in the lobby of the building where the debate was to be held, she pushed them aside and put her own ACLU books and pamphlets on display. Happily, some students took note and learned their first lesson of the evening in how the ACLU conducts itself.

There were 350 people in attendance the night of the debate, 100 or so from the ACLU. I had a great time, taking full advantage of debating on St. Patrick’s Day. After the debate, there was a question-and-answer period; it proved to be the highlight of the evening.

As is their wont, radicals turn every question into a filibuster. Some of the poor civil libertarians were practically in tears. Others just steamed. All proved my point that the ACLU is a highly politicized organization. Students learned firsthand that when politics takes the place of religion in people’s lives, they react with fanaticism when confronted with criticism.

There was to be another debate between Lieber and me following our live encounter. But he called the local radio show and canceled. Anyone for free speech?