by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared in the July 22, 2004, Boulder Weekly.
I suppose mine is the only box in the building that gets mail from both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. Though both groups do plenty of things that annoy me, I'm proud to be a card-carrying member of them, two of the largest civil rights organizations in the world.
"Let the fireworks begin," read a card from the ACLU advertising its conference held in San Francisco July 6-8. Our own Governor Bill Owens made the top of the list, along with Howard Dean, for a debate about civil liberties and the misnamed PATRIOT Act. That should be amusing, I thought. Further down the list: Bob Barr, another Republican. The ACLU is reaching out. Good.
What!? Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the NRA. I swoon.
It wasn't a misprint: ACLU.org confirmed LaPierre joined a panel on Thursday, July 8, from 8:30 to 10:15 am. The topic: "Freedom's Foundation: The First Amendment. A plenary session on fundamental rights -- such as freedom of speech and the press, right to assembly, and separation of church and state."
That seemingly unambiguous First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." No law. It seems so simple. As in, "Congress shall make no law."
Why is the NRA cooperating with the ACLU? In short, Congress made a law. Specifically, it passed the McCain-Feingold anti-free speech law.
Writing in 2001, before McCain-Feingold was passed, Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington National Office, argued the measure "contains an unprecedented attack on issue advocacy by nonpartisan groups and organizations. It would basically prohibit unions, corporations and issue organizations from effectively informing the public about the conduct of public officials who are candidates for election by imposing a total blackout on broadcasting any information about an incumbent candidate during the 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. Had this bill been the law during the 2000 elections, for example... [t]he NRA could not have run broadcast ads attacking the gun control positions of members of Congress."
In addition, Murphy continued, "Even individual citizens who want to join together to engage in such advocacy would be subjected to new and burdensome registration and reporting requirements."
LaPierre lamented, "You know, we don't put people in jail for free speech in the United States of America. But that's exactly what the McCain-Feingold bill would do. It outlaws political speech by groups like the NRA or CPAC or ACLU... or the Sierra Club 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. No political speech for any individual or any organizationÉ except politicians and the big media conglomerates!"
Unfortunately, the bill became law, and in December of last year the Supreme Court upheld it.
Recently, a conservative group complained Michael Moore's new movie violates McCain-Feingold. Another organization to which I pay dues, the Libertarian Party, issued a release: "The attack on Michael Moore's new documentary, 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' shows that free speech has come under an unprecedented assault in America, thanks to the campaign finance law passed by Congress last year, says Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik. 'The Constitution is on fire -- a fire that was set when Democrats and Republicans passed their so-called campaign finance reform law,' says Badnarik..."
I hope the latest cooperation between the NRA and the ACLU is an indication of improvements to come for both groups. The ACLU should devote more concern to economic liberty and the Second Amendment. The NRA should take up the banner for the Fourth Amendment and cast a critical eye toward the drug war, which causes horrendous violence and fosters police-state tactics.
Despite their problems, the NRA and the ACLU are bright spots on the political scene. These days, it seems factions of the left and the right are in a race to see which side can destroy our liberties the fastest. "I'll see your PATRIOT Act and raise you an anti-speech law." What happened to the good ol' days, when the left attacked only our economic liberties, while the right attacked only our civil rights? Now the left, which should know better, is undermining free speech, too.
If you believe "Congress shall make no law" actually means, "Congress shall make a law," and if you thereby wish to violate the fundamental human right of free speech, stop calling yourself a "liberal." You're no such thing -- "liberal" derives from that Latin word for free. You're an anti-liberal.
Similarly, if you believe "shall not be infringed" means instead, "shall be infringed," and if you wish to violate the fundamental human right of self-defense, you, too, have given up any legitimate claim to the term "liberal."
Give up the ghost, and pick a name that fits. If you have trouble with this, just write and I'll be happy to suggest some alternatives.