Shortly before the 1980 presidential election, the American Civil Liberties Union, afflicted with a particularly severe budget crisis, was mournfully about to cut the staff in its Washington office. Ronald Reagan saved those jobs. His election produced a surge in new ACLU memberships. Also helpful were nightmarish ACLU ads portraying the Moral Majority as Beelzebub about to torch the Bill of Rights.
After four years, the Constitution has not been turned into a prayer book, but certain civil liberties are somewhat at bay. Feeling "validated," as they put it, by the 1980 election results, various groups around the country -- in numbers not seen since the 1950s -- have been striving mightily to censor books in public school libraries and classrooms. They are not expected to rest during the second Reagan term, for there is so much yet to do.
Between the Supreme Court and the FBI, meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment has been treated like a felon in recent years. At the FBI, William Webster, speaking on National Public Radio on the day the president was reelected, assured the nation that the revelations in the DeLorean case of how far the FBI will go to get its man will not diminish the bureau's devotion to scams, stings and their undercover operatives who burrow at will into people's lives without a judicial warrant.
On Nov. 6, as Jerry Falwell has put it, God sent a second "spiritual awakening to America." Just as it did four years ago, the ACLU will be finding checks in the mail for weeks to come, I expect.
As the most visible citizens' guardian of the Bill of Rights, the ACLU has, however, failed in one crucial area of its responsibility -- not only during the past four years but throughout its history. Except for occasional forays by its affiliates, the ACLU has no resonating presence in the schools. Nor does it provide kids with regular chances, outside of school, to meet with and question civil- liberties workers, who have a lot of gripping stories to tell.
Even in colleges, while there are a few scattered ACLU chapters, the Trotskyites, for one example, are much more in evidence on all manner of campuses than are ACLU student members.
The future makeup of the Supreme Court was nowhere near a basic issue in the 1984 election. Neither was the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment, nor censorship in the schools. Such things do not compel the interest of much of the populace, certainly not the 18-to 24-year-old constituency. And the Bill of Rights will keep on being irrelevant to most of the electorate until kids come out of school feeling that these liberties are their own
-- that the Constitution belngs to them.
I know one teacher who,
year after year, makes rights and liberties as real to her students as Michael Jackson. A good deal more real, actually. At the Ditmas Junior High School in Brooklyn, Rose Reissman teaches the eighth grade. She is expert in making connections, in getting kids to think and to argue logically, including arguing with her.
A couple of years ago, one of her classes was reading "Huckleberry Finn" while also following news reports of attempts to censor the book. They also learned pre-Civil War history, including Mr. Twain's history. They talked, too, about the First Amendment and about black criticisms of the novel.
When I came to the school one day, four black eighth-graders were waiting for me at the door, so angry that they were practically hopping up and down. They were furious that there were people out there who thought that they, these black kids, were so stupid they couldn't tell the difference between a racist book and a book that exposes racism, which, the four eighth-graders insisted, is exactly what "Huckleberry Finn" does.
Rose Reissman's students have also spent a lot of time debating about the Baby Doe's (do these infants have rights independent of those of their parents?); the meaning of due process in student suspension cases (what are the times when you have to boot a kid out?), and other things that teach them what rights and liberties mean.
Her kids, I would bet, will not be snookered by political candidates waving flags instead of dealing with reality. But Rose Reissman is only one teacher. The ACLU has the resources to work, in various ways, with kids all over the land. Its sloth in this regard is incomprehensible. And dumb.