A headline from The Onion from a few years back: “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.” This is comic hyperbole built on an underlying truth: The ACLU had principles and was willing to defend those principles even in the most difficult cases. Most famously, in 1977 the ACLU defended the “Illinois Nazis” of The Blues Brothers fame, a neo-Nazi group in Skokie that wished to march through a Jewish neighborhood full of Holocaust survivors.
But that’s the thing about being principled rather than tribal or partisan: If you defend a set of principles like, say, the Bill of Rights to their logical conclusion, they won’t always benefit you or people you like. If you defend the First Amendment, your mom or your favorite president may get insulted. If you defend the Fourth Amendment, some guilty people may go free because of procedural errors made in prosecuting them.
The ACLU has throughout its history been adamant about defending Constitutional rights no matter they led, especially in cases involving the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. But not anymore. Now that Betsy DeVos has ruled that due process does not stop at the gates to the campus and that college students accused of sexual assault indeed enjoy the same Constitutional protections all other Americans have, the ACLU has sued to stop this rule change from being implemented. The utterly disgraceful description of its lawsuit against the Department of Education and DeVos on the ACLU site is as follows: “ACLU Sues Betsy DeVos For Allowing Schools to Ignore Sexual Harassment and Assault.” In a press release, the ACLU complained that DeVos’s rule change “would dramatically limit schools’ obligations to students who experience sexual violence.”
That is begging the question. Judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings are not supposed to be founded on the assumption that the crime alleged occurred and that the accused is guilty. The presumption of innocence is at the very heart of a liberal society’s conception of criminal justice. The ACLU used to not only understand this, it used to embody such understanding. No more. There is nothing left of this institution’s principles but a smoking crater.