ACLU’S Strossen sees attacks on federal courts as greatest threat to freespeech

Friday, November 6, 1998


Attacks by elected officials on the independence of America’s federal
judges is the single greatest threat facing free speech today, said Nadine
Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, during a
presentation of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards at Newseum/NY
last night.


Strossen slammed “the recently stepped up, increasingly nasty and to an
alarming extent effective attacks on the independence of our federal
courts, which are designed to provide a backstop for all fundamental
freedoms when other governmental officials violate them.”


This threat to free speech overshadows all others because it undermines
what Strossen calls the chief safety net for free speech rights. “Given the
lack of political courage among too many elected officials when it comes to
First Amendment rights, we constantly have to turn to the federal courts to
ask them to overturn and invalidate actions by other government officials.”


Exacerbating the fact that elected officials have been passing the
constitutional buck to the courts, Strossen says, is that too many
politicians “attack the very judges who take seriously the oath that the
elected officials also take to defend and uphold the Constitution.”


Illustrating the burden politicians place on the courts is what Strossen
describes as the “new federal cybercensorship law,” passed two weeks ago by
Congress and President Clinton, CDA II.


“Almost no politicians on either side of the aisle dare to vote against
[such] censorial laws [as CDA II] “During the lobbying process I can’t tell
you how many politicians said to me ‘I know this law is unconstitutional, I
know this law is unwise, but I dare not vote against it for fear of being
accused of being soft on crime or soft on porn’. And how many lawmakers
came up to [ACLU representatives] after the first CDA was struck down to
thank us and congratulate us for doing the work that they were supposed to
do.”


Strossen’s remark that thus far, 19 federal judges representing a wide
political spectrum have voted against cybercensorship and for free speech
online met with applause from the participants gathered in the auditorium.


She also evoked laughter from the audience when she noted that far beyond
endangering the activities of “so-called commercial pornographers, “an
even…more diverse array of expression is endangered by CDA II since it
outlaws anything that any community might deem harmful to lawyers—I’m
sorry, harmful to minors.”


“Don’t quote me in Congress,” she added, “or that will be passed in a
flash.”