The ACLU has grappled with ‘turmoil’ and infighting — while enjoying record growth and support: report
File photo: A member of the ACLU observes a polling station during voting in the 2016 presidential election at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S November 8, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded in 1920 when Woodrow Wilson was president, has been around for 102 years. And in 2022, the ACLU is more important and badly needed than ever as Christian nationalists and the far-right, nakedly authoritarian MAGA movement attack everything from voting rights to gay rights to reproductive freedom.

In fact, there has been a movement within the ACLU to expand and broaden the organization’s activities. But according to a report for HuffPost, the ambitions of ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero are giving the organization some growing pains.

In an article published by HuffPost on June 17, journalist Molly Redden notes that the ACLU, under Romero, has “been trying to do things differently for years.”

“Over the past decade, it has been Romero’s goal to build the organization — which has historically done most of its fighting in the courtroom — into one that wields as much political and cultural clout for civil rights as the National Rifle Association does for the gun lobby,” Redden reports. “Romero had even commissioned a study, in 2013, of what made the NRA so powerful."

The election of former President Donald Trump in 2016, according to Redden, “put the ACLU’s ambitions on rocket boosters."

“In the aftermath of the 2016 election,” Redden observed, “millions of stricken Americans opened their wallets to the ACLU or joined its legions of volunteers, giving the organization both the mandate and the money to try to lead the anti-Trump resistance. But slapping rocket boosters on a century-old ship has consequences.”

A former ACLU employee, interviewed on condition of anonymity, told HuffPost, “I’ve never seen a big, legacy liberal institution successfully pivot, and certainly not as quickly, as the ACLU was trying to.”

According to Redden, that attempt to “pivot” has created a lot of “turmoil” within the ACLU.

“This article is based on more than 30 interviews with former and current ACLU staffers and internal documents, e-mails, chat logs, recordings of meetings and legal filings that corroborate their accounts,” Redden explains. “Most current employees spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, while many former employees requested anonymity because they continue to work in civil rights and don’t want to jeopardize their relationship or their employer’s relationship with the ACLU.”

It should be stressed that when Redden speaks of “turmoil” within the ACLU, she isn’t saying that the organization is shrinking — far from it. In fact, it has grown in size thanks to the “Trump bump” and the MAGA movement’s all-out assault on civil liberties.

Rather, the “turmoil” is the result of the ACLU trying to become a bigger, broader organization and deal with its own growth and expansion.

Redden explains, “Since 2016, the ACLU national staff has ballooned in headcount, from 323 to 544, and has grown more diverse, a spokesperson for the ACLU said. About half of the current staff and half of the current leadership identify as people of color. But turnover among people of color, especially among Black staff, was high during this period. The ACLU recently boasted, in response to a discrimination lawsuit that is still ongoing, that the attrition of Black staff had fallen from 2018 to 2021 by nearly half. Multiple former Black staffers said they got tired of covering for their White colleagues.”

Romeo declined to be interviewed for Redden’s article or discuss the ACLU infighting that the HuffPost reporter describes, but he did send a statement — emphasizing that the organization expects to have a lot on its plate in the months ahead.

“The ACLU was fortunate to see an outpouring of support from millions of individuals to help fuel our fight against the Trump Administration,” Romero told HuffPost. “This support allowed us to expand our fight across multiple fronts including at the grassroots level and expand the tools to do this work, which included investing in people, technology and analytics.”

Romero added, “With the Supreme Court on the cusp of rolling back a right to an abortion which has existed for nearly 50 years, it’s increasingly clear that we can’t put all our eggs in the litigation basket, and the initiatives and experiments of the last several years will serve to fuel new types of advocacy in the years to come.”