No one who’s been paying attention to the ACLU’s trajectory in recent years should be under the illusion that the organization has much to do with civil liberties anymore. It might strike civil-libertarian notes when they happen to align with the broader progressive agenda – criminal-justice reform, abolition of the death penalty, abortion-on-demand, and so on – but these are marriages of convenience, not expressions of principle. The fiercely independent advocacy organization that famously defended the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s is no more; in its place lies a standard-issue progressive activist group, one that is often a rabid cheerleader for the Left’s most authoritarian and illiberal ambitions.
This is not a particularly new revelation, of course. The ACLU, once described by the New York Times as “America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties,” has been moving away from its founding principles for decades. It is free to do so, though this move remains frustrating — particularly when the organization continues to insist that its turn away from civil liberties is entirely consistent with its traditional mission, couching support for any number of progressive power-grabs in the language of freedom and constitutional rights.
The latest example of this is today’s New York Times essay arguing for vaccine mandates, co-written by ACLU national leaders David Cole and Daniel Mach. There is a legitimate range of debate to be had about vaccine mandates in public policy — but that’s not the ACLU’s argument. Instead, the authors go two steps further:
Far from compromising civil liberties, vaccine mandates actually further civil liberties. They protect the most vulnerable among us, including people with disabilities and fragile immune systems, children too young to be vaccinated and communities of color hit hard by the disease.
Vaccine requirements also safeguard those whose work involves regular exposure to the public, like teachers, doctors and nurses, bus drivers and grocery store employees. And by inoculating people from the disease’s worst effects, the vaccines offer the promise of restoring to all of us our most basic liberties, eventually allowing us to return safely to life as we knew it, in schools and at houses of worship and political meetings, not to mention at restaurants, bars, and gatherings with family and friends.
Protecting the broader population from infectious diseases is a noble policy goal — but how does it further civil liberties? The ACLU’s best attempt at an answer seems to be that a vaccine mandate could restore other liberties down the line, with “the promise of restoring to all of us our most basic liberties.” Such a mandate would be “a justifiable intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity,” the article admits. “That may sound ominous, because we all have the fundamental right to bodily integrity and to make our own health care decisions. But these rights are not absolute. They do not include the right to inflict harm on others.” Someone should have told the ACLU that yesterday; it might have prevented its ongoing meltdown over the new abortion restrictions in Texas, which the the organization’s Twitter denounced as “a racial and economic justice catastrophe,” “a full-scale assault on patients, our health care providers, and our support systems,” and “blatantly unconstitutional,” to boot.
The article’s authors readily cede that vaccine mandates, while “justifiable,” are an “intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity.” How can an intrusion on autonomy simultaneously be an expansion of freedom? Government mandates are government mandates. Sometimes, perhaps, they are reasonable or necessary — if that were the ACLU’s argument, it might stand on firmer ground. But the suggestion that such policies represent a furthering of civil liberties is an affront to the original — and legitimate — meaning of the term.