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Nadine Strossen: 'I find the pro-censorship feminists politically naive.' (Interview)

At forty-three, Nadine Strossen, law professor, writer, legal theorist, is the youngest lawyer and the first woman to head the American Civil Liberties Union. As a young woman, Strossen had no dreams of lawyering. "I had ever met a woman lawyer," the dark-haired Strossen explains on a frozen New York winter afternoon in her offices at the New York Law School. "I had never met a woman who was a professional anything, other than teacher. I became vicariously ambitious for the males I knew. I was state champion debater and the only woman on my team. I told all my male debate partners that they should become lawyers. It never occurred to me that it was a possibility for me."

While a student at Radcliffe in the early 1970s, Strossen became involved in the legal battles for reproductive rights and grabbed some of the early wins of the women's movement by attending Harvard Law School. Her concerns as a lawyer were for women's rights and human rights, which led her to working for the ACLU. Ironically, she now finds herself defending free speech from the depredations of the Government and from feminists who have launched full-scale assaults on what they call pomography.

Strossen radiates an interesting kind of glamour born of selfconfidence. She is intellectual, combative, extremely sure of herself, unvictimized. She leads the life she wants to live, passionately, fearlessly. This is a law professor who goes to work wearing a shimmering silk outfit and a ton or two of silver freeform jewelry. If some feminists have declared that sensuality and glamour are part of their oppression, she insists on declaring it part of her being. One senses that in her politics and her personal style, Strossen is constantly telling the world, Hey, give freedom a break! "

Q: Your religious affiliation could almost be described as First Amendment Absolutist." Have you always been a civil libertarian?

Nadine Strossen: It goes back as far as I can remember. My maternal grandfather was a pacifist and a Marxist in World War 1, and he was made to stand in front of the town hall in West New York, New Jersey, so that passersby could come and spit at him. As a socialist, he was not oriented to the strong sense of individual rights that I have. But he was very much a humanist, an idealist.

My father grew up in Berlin, where he was involved in anti- Hitler youth organizations and was arrested and put into forced-labor camps. Americans liberated him from Buchenwaid, and he went to the United States on one of the very first ships of survivors. Later in life, my father became a committed conservative. When I think about it, I realize I selected out particular aspects of my family background that were most resonant to me. In my father's case, it was a belief in individual rights, a kind of libertarianism.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that my earliest memories are of having feelings about a sense of privacy, justice, and freedom of speech. I was constantly arguing with parents and teachers when I felt they were intruding on my rights or the rights of others. I was always deeply upset when I saw animals in kids' books being treated unfairly.

Q: You're the first woman to head the ACLU. Proud?

Strossen: Yes, very proud, From the begginnin, though, for the first time in the ACLU'S seventy-plus years, the top position is being held by a woman. From the beginning, though, women played an important role in the organization. In 1920, our founding mothers included Jane Addams, Crystal Eastman, and Jeannette Rankin. Many of our founders came out of the women's suffrage and peace movements. From the outset, the ACLU took women's-rights cases, including those of one of our founders, Mary Dennett, and of Margaret Sanger. They were prosecuted under "obscenity laws" for distributing birth-control information.

Q: Given the ACLU'S history, are you astonished by the contemporary call for censorship that is issuing from some feminists - the women's antipornography movement?

Strossen: I'm not surprised, Claudia. At this point, I'm jaded enough to think that threats to civil liberties come from all parts of the political spectrum. The way I deconstruct this movement is that its leaders are looking for a quick-fix solution to very complex and troubling social problems. Many women out there are understandably frustrated about misogyny and discrimination. Their answer seems to be, "destroy troubling imagery." My problem is that censorship will never deal with the underlying problems of violence and discrimination. We have to change people's perceptions. To solve a social problem, we need more speech.

My critique of people like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon is that their call for censorship doesn't enhance women's safety or advance women's equality. On the contrary, censorship undermines safety and equality. Moreover-i have to say it-i find the pro-censorship feminists politically naive. And I would put the people wanting to institute "hate-speech" regulations on campus in the same category. When the procensorship feminists and the anti-hate-speech people say that there is a power establishment in this country from which women and racial minorities have been systematically excluded, they are right, of course. But then they go on to give this new tool to the power structure-the open-ended power to punish or suppress words that may be subordinating or degrading to women, or hate-speech.

The power structure will use hate-speech regulations and censorship laws against the very groups that are themselves the most marginalized: women, minorities, lesbians and gay men. Truth is that the hate speech codes on campus have consistently been enforced disproportionally against members of minority groups.

Q: So you would say, "Why give the power structure more weapons of suppression than it already has?"

Strossen: Exactly. Look at what's happened in Canada. In 1992, the Canadian Supreme Court adopted the Andrea Dworkin/catharine MacKinnon definition of pornography as sexually explicit speech that is degrading and dehumanizing" to women. MacKinnon worked closely with a Canadian women's organization that had argued the case before the Canadian Supreme Court. Given that open-ended standard, the Canadian authorities immediately used their new powers to attack images of lesbian sexuality. The very first prosecution when the new law went into effect was of a lesbian magazine and a lesbian and gay bookstore in Toronto.

There has, in fact, been such a systematic pattern of harassment against lesbian and gay bookstores since this law went into effect that the ACLU'S counterpart in Canada, the CCLA, has brought a lawsuit against the government, saying that it is discriminatorily enforcing the law against lesbian and gay bookstores. Whereupon the government has broadened its effort somewhat and has attacked feminist and some campus bookstores.

Interestingly, the Canadian government has also barred two of Andrea Dworkin's books from coming into the country: Pornography-men Processing Women and Woman Hating.

Q: Does the mere title "pornography" make something pornographic?

Strossen: Well, the Canadian authorities probably looked at the contents of the book, which like so many of these antipornography tracts contains vivid descriptions of the material under attack. I have heard that Andrea Dworkin had long said that she recognized that her own works might be the first casualties of this law, and that was a price she considered worth paying. I don't know whether she really said it, but it's an indisputable fact that her works are subject to censorship under the Canadian law. Her books are filled with images and descriptions of vicious, violent pornography.

And that's not surprising. If you look at the tactics of women's antipornography groups, their classic technique is to display the most horrific, frightening images they want banned. They display this stuff not because they believe people are going to look at it and commit a rape, but because they want to sensitize people to the serious problem of violence against women. And Id like to commend them for that. I believe in getting those ideas out there. However, I vehemently disagree with their chosen means for solving the problems of sexism and misogyny. Censorship is not going to help women. More than that, it seems to get a lot of women censored.

And it also leaves room to let some wrongdoing by men off the hook. With the MacKinnon/Dworkin approach, you can understand them to be saying that a man who commits a sex crime is himself a victim-pornography made him do it.

Q: So mass killer Ted Bundy gets up and says ...

Strossen: . . ."Pornography made me do it!" He said it to try to get out of the death penalty at the last minute. He saw it as a mitigating factor. And under state law, it would be a mitigating factor. If you could show that you were driven to a crime by some external factor, that can reduce the level of the offense and the penalty. That's why when the Senate, last year, considered the Pornography Victims Compensation Act, some Senators voted against it; they felt it would displace responsibility from some perpetrators of crime and put it on pornography, instead.

Q: So you oppose the antipornography feminists tactically and substantively?

Strossen: Right. And more than that, I do not see all pornography as conveying unmitigatedly misogynistic messages.

Q: You look at it yourself sometimes?

Strossen: I do. I find some of it physically beautiful, the way one might find paintings of nudes physically beautiful.

You know, what you see in a particular image is so subjective. Take the kind of image that feminists might find objectionable - an image that might convey a woman being raped, a woman not involved in voluntary sexual activity. If you read Nancy Friday's books of sexual fantasies reported by thousands of women, she says a significant theme is women being turned on by images of rape-not real rapes, of course. The way she explains it is that in a society where many women still believe it is bad for them to voluntarily want sex, these images are acceptable to them.

Obviously, I'm not going to defend the actual rape of a real woman for the purpose of creating a pornographic picture. But many supporters of MacKinnon and Dworkin do not just say that pornography causes rape, but that it is rape.

Q: So you're a woman who's unafraid to say that you are a consumer of sexual materials?

Strossen: Absolutely. I do look at Playboy; I consider its imagery beautiful and often erotically stimulating. What else? I liked Madonna's book; I thought it aesthetically pleasurable to look at, funny, brave, feisty. I got a good laugh out of it.

There's something intellectually provocative about some pornography. In hotels, they sometimes now have soft-core porn. At night, when I'm done giving a speech, I don't mind turning on the Playboy Channel or The Red Shoe diaries. I mean, what's the alternative? My husband isn't there. I do a lot of traveling and I'm glad the hotels have this stuff.

Q: How do you feel when Big Sister is telling you what you can enjoy and can't?

Strossen: Furious. And I've always been that way What I read, what I enjoy, how I spend my time should be my decision as a human being-so long as I'm not harming anyone else.

There's always this hypocrisy at the bottom of all calls for censorship, because those who advocate censorship are themselves the most massive consumers of-and, in some cases, creators of-materials they think are too dangerous for others to see. Dworkin and MacKinnon have probably seen more pornography than most men we know. Members of the Meese Pornography Commission steeped themselves in the stuff. They went to Times Square and looked at everything-and then said it was much too dangerous for anyone else to look at.

Another thing, there has always been a kind of elitism and classism involved in censorship. Certainly that's been true of pornography. And movements to censor have always been associated with the invention of a new mass medium that makes the material more widely available. You know, when "gentlemen" could see pornography through expensively produced editions, it was just fine. But then it became widely available through magazines and, worse yet, films, and now it's going to be available to everyone on ...

Q: ... On Cd-Rom?

Strossen: Right. On computers. My husband, who is a technology buff, brought home one of those things. I did not find it erotic. It's unconvincing, at this point. But it's interesting.

Q: The antipomography feminists would say that your ideas on sexual literature are the end product of your oppression as a woman.

Strossen: I find that deeply insulting. That, to me, is degrading and dehumanizing. It's saying, "You are less than a human being. Your feelings are not really your own, your ideas are not really your own-and your body is not really your own." Well, what's left?

I was in a debate some months ago with Kathleen Mahoney, a Canadian antipornography activist, who argued the case in which the Canadian Supreme Court accepted the MacKinnon/ Dworkin definition of "pornography." She actually told me that individual liberties and a belief in civil liberties is a male idea and that anybody who has that idea is essentially a male. I was furious. Can you believe that? I had my own ideas about freedom long before I was taught by any man or read a book by any man. I consider it the height of insult to suggest that I'm not thinking for myself.

Q: How do your civil-libertarian friends react to your pro-porn position?

Strossen: A number have said that I go too far in saying I'm pro-pornography. They say that I should just say, "I'm pro-free speech." Well, that goes without saying. Why do we have to make this disclaimer when we are talking about sexual expression? My point is, we don't make a disclaimer when we defend any other kind of art. Some porn is good, some is bad. Frankly, I think I get that reaction because the term "pornography" has become so demonized in our culture. It's come to mean, "any sexual speech that I don't like." It's important to reclaim the language.

Q: Speaking of sexual literature, you wrote a recent op-ed piece about Senator Packwood's diaries. You said he had the right to keep them private.

Strossen: There's an important principle here: Material that we turn over to a person or organization for one purpose may not, therefore, be seen by any other person or organization for another purpose. That you let one person see it for the purpose of transcribing does not mean it is open to the world. If that were true, the American Express Company could give information on its customers to everybody, and the Government could use the enormous information in its data banks.

This is a point that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously recognized in the closest case to this issue, the case involving Richard Nixon's diaries, which he also kept on tape, and which included a record of personal and public events that was transcribed by a Government employee working in his office. These were tapes like the ones Packwood made. The Supreme Court held that they were private.

Q: But Packwood won't win this one, will he?

Strossen: I think he will. In the Supreme Court, I think he ultimately has a good argument. He may have lost his case at the Federal district court level, but I believe that ruling was incorrect, and I hope it will be overturned on appeal. If not, it creates a dangerous precedent, not only for the Bob Packwoods but for all of us - for anyone who treasures privacy.

Now, in the legislature - in the Senate - I think he's pretty much dead. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had decided to resign - though as we speak, he hasn't. I'm glad he didn't, because it would have set a bad precedent if the Senate had been allowed to walk roughshod over his privacy rights.

Q: You'd better elaborate.

Strossen: Packwood's privacy rights were violated by the incredibly open - ended fishing-expedition approach of the Senate subpoena - which was not limited to material relevant to the sexual misconduct and intimidation charges. The Senate can't say, "We want a license to rummage unfettered through these diaries on the chance that we might find something that would lead to other charges." That's not the way things are supposed to be in this country. They can't search your house hoping to find evidence of a crime - and then charge you with a crime. The charge has to come first.

In terms of the First Amendment, there was an attempt to overturn Packwood's election on the basis of statements made in his campaign. And our argument was that punishment for statements made in a political campaign has to violate the core of the principle that the Government must not be in the position of censoring political speech. I'm sure he's not going to run again, and he may be forced to resign, but we can't have Government deprive him of his speech.

Q: For someone whose legal career started in the campaigns to legalize abortion, how do you feel about the recent Supreme Court decision to make right-to-life protests at abortion clinics illegal under the RICO laws?

Strossen: I am opposed to rulings that would limit the rights of anti-abortion activists to express their views in a peaceful non - obstructive way. This new ruling is dangerous to all political activism because it poses the threat of enormous financial costs to people who are expressing controversial political opinions, The same kind of law could be used against any political demonstrators, including those in favor of abortion or civil rights or even civil liberties. If this law had existed in the 1960s, we know it would have been used against Martin Luther King Jr. and the sit - in demonstrators.

Q: On another subject: Give us your assessment of the state of civil liberties during the twelve years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Strossen: Reagan and Bush systematically appointed individuals to the Supreme Court who have a very narrow view of human rights. As a result, we've seen decisions that have cut back on human rights across the spectrum: everything from freedom of speech, to freedom of religion, to rights of people accused of crimes, to reproductive rights. We have fewer constitutional rights now than we did before the first Reagan election.

Abortion? It's harder now to get an abortion than at any time since the early 1970s. That's a frightening reality that the Supreme Court dealt us.

Civil rights? The civil-rights division of the Justice Department was co-opted by people who were anti-civil rights. Q: During the 1988 election campaign, the acronym ACLU became something dirty - "pornographic," if you will. George Bush accused Michael Dukakis of being a "card-carrying member" of your organization. He implied that the ACLU was an awful, unpatriotic outfit.

Strossen: Actually, George Bush's ACLU-bashing campaign had a positive effect. Tens of thousands of Americans wrote in and said, "I want to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU." That kind of surge always occurs in an emergency, but when the excitement passes, there's a dip in interest. In some ways, the Clinton election was not good for the ACLU. Our members and friends had an exaggerated sense of how much better things would be under Clinton. On issues like the death penalty, there's no way to tell the difference between Clinton and Bush,

To be fair to Bill Clinton, he's been very good on reproductive freedom. It seems that his judicial appointments are going to be good, starting with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But he has been a deep disappointment in reneging on campaign statements on some civil-liberties issues.

In the category of broken promises, there's gays in the military. The Clinton Administration actually defended the old Bush policy in court, arguing that Keith Meinhold and Joe Steffan should not be in the military, just because they are gay.

Q: I take it you find Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military appalling?

Strossen: Yes. This policy is based on the complete suppression of free-speech rights. "You can be who you want, but you'd better not talk about it." And the Clinton notion says that you can exclude people from the military because their sexual orientation makes other people uncomfortable. In other words, the Administration's policy says, "Other people will be uncomfortable around gays because they hate them, and for that reason we are going to suppress your sexual orientation." This amounts to surrendering openly to naked prejudice. The old policy at least had the fig leaf of national security. In the old days, the rationale was that gays were "a threat to national security because of the threat of blackmail." Q: You dislike Janet Reno? Strossen: As a leader, I don't admire her, I have to say that quite candidly. She's the chief law-enforcement authority and she has used that platform in ways that are, at worst, counterproductive and, at best, ineffective. In her testimony before Congress on TV violence, she said that the various measures being proposed to restrict violent imagery on TV are constitutional. But they are not. To have our top law-enforcement officer making that kind of pronouncement, I find deeply distressing.

On the positive side, she's said she's against mandatory minimum sentences. Let's see how effective she'll be at raising those concerns.

Q: A final question: Do you ever wonder whether the Bill of Rights could be adopted today?

Strossen: Every now and then someone does an opinion poll in which people are told what the Bill of Rights is. The pollees always seem to say, "Let's get rid of that." That's why Roger Baldwin, the principal ACLU founder, said, "No fight for civil liberties ever stays won." I'm afraid it's more true than ever.
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Author:Dreifus, Claudia
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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