News & Politics

Still Fighting

As the ACLU turns 90, a longtime leader in the Washington office reflects on the future of civil liberties

The American Civil Liberties Union celebrates its 90th birthday this week on a high note: It recently announced that a five-year fundraising campaign brought in $407 million—$150 million more than the goal. A traveling exhibition highlighting the ACLU’s role in major social changes—from racial and gender equality to the protection of civil liberties during wartime—opens at DC’s Union Station September 23. But while the organization is touting its accomplishments, it has adopted the motto “No victory ever stays won.” Laura Murphy, head of the Washington legislative office, says that the group is planning aggressively for the future.

Murphy joined the ACLU in Washington in 1979 as its first female African-American lobbyist. The ACLU had always had a vigorous internal culture of discussion and dissent, but Murphy has seen a steady growth in the voices the group heeds as it plays a larger role in gay and women’s rights as well as disability issues and expands its international presence and state-level affiliate programs.

“I do feel I’ve seen a culture migrate from a straight male work environment to a diverse organization,” she says. “We’re not a monolith.”

The ACLU today is more professionalized than it was in 1979, with communications and development divisions that were unimaginable in the five-person Washington and New York offices back then.

That expanded staff may mean the ACLU has new capacities (among them, raising $407 million), but Murphy says it still tries to be aggressive and strategic with resources, especially after the recession led longtime donor David Gelbaum to stop giving. The ACLU, Murphy says, has tried to use such losses “as an opportunity to make ourselves stronger.”

The group has always considered it can bring to an issue or campaign that’s unique, be it litigation or a protracted lobbying campaign. Before committing to a project, Murphy says, the ACLU asks itself: “Are we the difference-making game-changer in this fight? Who are we helping?”

And it’s not only about financial resources. The September 11 attacks and other events introduced issues such as the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists while exacerbating existing problems such as racial profiling.

Murphy says the ACLU is under no illusions that it will finish its work. There will always be threats on civil liberties—whether the government wants to intern citizens in wartime, public sentiment turns against immigrants, or lawmakers try to amend the Constitution to score political points on issues such as flag desecration.

“There will always be tensions because there will always be new waves of people seeking rights,” she says. From disabled people fighting for the Americans With Disabilities Act to gay people seeking to dismantle legal structures that prevent them from marrying, the battlefields expand with each generation.

In an increasingly partisan Washington, Murphy says the group takes pride in the doors both Republican and Democratic administrations have kept open for it. And partisan lines don’t always mean what observers might expect, she cautions. Crime legislation that the organization was able to defeat on civil liberties grounds under President Reagan—when Democrats felt more defensive—was passed despite ACLU objections during the Democratic resurgence of the Clinton years.

“What we strive to be,” Murphy insists, “is the just critic for any administration.”

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