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Talking Liberties

Susan Herman ’68 attended a public elementary school in the suburbs of Long Island in the late 1950s. In those years, the school library—a place Herman visited often—divided its books by gender. A girls’ section was filled with fairy tales, biographies of first ladies, and stories of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton. The boys’ section contained somewhat more adventurous fare—stories of war heroes and patriots risking their lives, America’s fight for independence, and books about the presidents.

“I decided I would read a book about Johnny Tremain,” Herman recounts, explaining that a version of the story, set in Boston just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, was the school play one year. Herman was told she couldn’t take the book out because it was in the boys’ section; she would need a note from her mother giving her permission. “I went home, and told my mom this,” she continues, “and my mother couldn’t believe it, she was outraged.” Herman’s mother wrote a note expressing how wrong she thought this was, and of course, gave permission for her daughter to read the book.

The experience, as Herman describes it, was her first with a civil libertarian (her mom) standing up to authorities who claimed to know what was best for the young girl. “That was a real eye-opener,” Herman says. “To see my mother’s outrage suggested to me that I could aspire to be more than Dolly Madison.”

Herman set out to do just that. She started at Goucher College in the fall of 1964, transferring to Barnard after two years. Coming of age in the late ’60s and graduating New York University law school in 1974, there was no doubt in Herman’s mind that what she wanted to do was to change the world. Today Susan Herman, a constitutional law professor and scholar, is president of the American Civil Liberties Union, elected this past October after 20 years of service on the ACLU’s board.

The challenges she and the organization confront arise from just how quickly the world she set out to change is changing on its own—whether from technology, global threats, an economy in severe recession, or our own government’s challenges to constitutional rights and civil liberties. Barnard Magazine talked to Herman about how different the world is today, and what this means for the future of civil liberties and for today’s young, idealistic lawyers.

What does the Obama administration mean for the ACLU?

Ever since 9/11, we’ve had to play defense. In the last eight years, the government’s war on terror—the massive surveillance efforts, the detentions—was a tremendous distraction; our primary focus was responding to what the federal government was doing. Now we hope we can get back to an “America we can all be proud of,” as our slogan says. There’s a lot of work to be done with respect to the federal government and at the state and local level, where most of the ACLU’s work has always been.

In his first days, President Barack Obama did things that were quite welcome, and that, on principle, we welcome: as examples, renouncing the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques; saying he would close the Guantánamo facility. But, that’s just the start. There is a tremendous amount of work to do to restore our values. People talk a lot about economic recovery these days. We also need a lot of justice recovery.

But, we can hope that the federal government will be more of an ally. We’re having an entirely different conversation now about what we can expect from the federal government, which historically has been a force for the promotion of civil rights. That was true during the 1960s.

Does this mean a shift in the ACLU’s priorities, and, if so, what is that shift?

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and we’ve got lots of work to do. We are challenged as most every other organization is, and we’re just trying to keep the budget balanced. Our work is non-partisan—it’s not Republican or Democrat. More people came to understand some of the ACLU’s underlying principles in the years after 9/11; more people developed an appreciation for our underlying mission. After 9/11, many of the most pressing issues were really national problems, coming out of Washington.

 Today, we are committing more of our resources to our affiliates; we are going to focus more on what is happening in the states. Those issues are all over the place—a terrible immigrant-bashing problem, racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline. Our affiliates were active in the Iowa litigation that resulted in same-sex couples being allowed to marry. We were among those who lobbied successfully in New Mexico for the abolition of the death penalty.

How carefully should we be watching the actions and the statements of the Obama administration right now?

The Obama administration has been hesitant to separate itself from some of the Bush policies in a way that we find very alarming. In the beginning of February, the administration argued the “state secrets privilege” to deny victims of extraordinary rendition and torture their day in court, continuing the position the Bush administration had taken. That was extremely disappointing to us. He is moving slowly in some of these areas, and he’s not ruling out options that civil libertarians find alarming. I can understand why they’d want to take it one step at a time, and so that’s why we’re not ready the hang out the “mission accomplished” banner. What the ACLU is doing now is keeping the pressure on, keeping the public informed and the public discussions ongoing.

When did you first become involved with the ACLU?

While a law student, I worked for a professor who was involved with the ACLU, both doing general research for him and working on a case. The case was a challenge to an ordinance in Belle Terre, Long Island, that restricted who could live in the village to “families”—defined as people related by blood, marriage, or adoption. Our clients were six Stony Brook University graduate students prohibited from sharing a house. We lost the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, but I still think the ordinance is outrageous. How can the government tell us with whom we can live?

I was attracted to the ACLU because the organization, unlike single-issue organizations, works on so many of the issues I find important—and finds the common threads among those issues.

What did you think about the potential to remain involved with the organization at that time?

I didn’t. I was a law student, playing a secondary role. But I think that students and other young people could consider ways to become active in leadership roles. We have had board members who were students—even a high school student at one point. Many students and people who came of age during the Bush years discovered that they care about what our government does, which is why they worked hard to elect Obama. They wanted to change what our country was doing in some way. The next logical step for those people is to join the ACLU and help us to keep the pressure on the president and Congress to actually give us the kind of change they promised.

How is today’s working world different than the one you encountered after graduating

 In 1974, it was still relatively the beginning of the civil rights era, the revolution in public interest, and legal-services organizations. In some ways there was more opportunity because of this. Since then, pro bono organizations have faced greater economic difficulties—they never had enough money to hire as many people as they could use or as many who wanted to work for them. Lawyers developed more partnerships: a law firm would send someone to a legal-services organization, or to work with the ACLU. People worked together on bar association committees or reports. Today, there are more public-private hybrids, but it’s important that the law firms ask young lawyers to do some sort of public interest work. There are opportunities to volunteer and to help fill the needs of the many organizations out there. These groups will be challenged to be nimble, as will the private law firms—the economy is challenging everybody to be nimble.

How do you manage the demands of teaching and leading the 80-member board of the ACLU?

Let me quote another Barnard alumna, Judith Kaye ’58. She used to say that her job always had two parts: She was chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, and she was chief judge of the State of New York. Each of those jobs, she said, took 80 percent of her time. So I say, I have two jobs, teaching and the ACLU, and each of my jobs is taking 80 percent of my time.

-by Dmitra Kessenides, illustration by Neil Webb