Opinions Vary on ‘Mainstream’ Status of ACLU

Times Staff Writer

Vice President George Bush probably would not have approved of the American Civil Liberties Union’s defense of a political group trying to register voters at Northridge Fashion Center two years ago.

The group was the Democratic Party, and the ACLU sued to challenge burdensome rules the shopping center had placed on political groups at the mall.

Bush turned the spotlight on the ACLU during the Sept. 25 presidential debate when he denounced Democratic opponent Michael S. Dukakis for being “a card-carrying member of the ACLU” and, therefore, “out of the mainstream.”

The remarks left the ACLU on the defensive. “There’s a problem in the perception of what we do,” said Rosa Martinez, associate director of the organization’s Los Angeles chapter.


A review of recent cases the ACLU has taken in the San Fernando Valley elicits differing opinions from constitutional scholars and others on whether the group’s position has strayed far from the mainstream of public sentiment on local issues.

William Freeman, a speech communications professor at Cal State Northridge, characterized the ACLU’s stances on Valley issues as “about as mainstream as you can get. If there are some people who believe it is not, it is because they simply don’t understand the organization.”

Freeman called Bush’s statements “name-calling,” saying, “To suggest that the ACLU simply handles leftist causes is simply untrue.”

In recent years, the ACLU has filed lawsuits to aid several other groups in Valley cases, in addition to the Democrats trying to register voters at the mall:


* Occupants of suspected fortified drug “rock houses.” The Los Angeles Police Department three years ago used a motorized “battering ram” and explosive devices to break into such houses several times. The state Supreme Court in January, 1987, ruled that police must have a search warrant and approval from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge before using the battering ram.

* Four Latino youths who were barred in April, 1987, from entering Magic Mountain amusement park after security guards accused them of being gang members. The ACLU sued Magic Mountain and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, charging them with violation of state and federal civil rights law. The case is unresolved.

* Solicitors for the environmental group Greenpeace and charities from outside the city. The city of Glendale was requiring them to submit to fingerprinting, saying it was in compliance with a 41-year-old city ordinance.

* A journalism student at CSUN who submitted a controversial cartoon on affirmative action to the college’s newspaper, the Daily Sundial, in May, 1988. School advisers said material must be submitted for review before being published, and critics charged censorship. The case has not been settled.

Some of the targets of the lawsuits declined to comment on where they thought the ACLU fit in the political spectrum.

Fred Nixon, a police spokesman, said: “Our use of the battering ram was held to be appropriate with specificly defined guidelines. . . . You can draw whatever inference you want regarding the ACLU from that.”

Sherrie Bang, a spokeswoman for Magic Mountain, said: “We are not interested in commenting, since the case is in litigation. But any statement that says our admission policies are discriminatory is absurd.”

CSUN sociology professor Lawrence Sneden said that while some of the cases tackled by the ACLU in the Valley could fit within the mainstream of public opinion, others could be considered of borderline significance.


“The ACLU has taken some stances that are less popular and, I think, less reasonable,” Sneden said.

‘Tepid Issues’

However, he said that the particular cases focused on “necessary, important but not hot issues.”

“These are tepid issues,” Sneden said. “But they are at the margins, the periphery of serious issues, like disallowing people based on ethnicity or dress.”

Other issues the ACLU has taken up in the Valley, such as the battering ram case, “are mainstream in the sense that they tie into crime.”

However, UCLA law professor Julian Eule said she believes that the ACLU characteristically takes on issues that are unpopular.

“By its very nature, the ACLU gets involved in things on the fringes,” Eule said. “The ACLU is an organization that’s around to represent people who won’t be represented by regular firms.”