“Safe and Free” 

The weekend's various Memorial Day celebrations were reminders to all of us of the sacrifices made over the nearly 250 years of our country's history by the brave men and women who have taken up arms to defend our freedoms — often at the cost of their lives.

The visit to Memphis on Tuesday of Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a reminder that the battle on behalf of those freedoms goes on in civil spheres as well.

In a luncheon speech to members of the Memphis Rotary Club, Weinberg took note of the prevailing impression that the ACLU had an ideological tilt to the left and promptly set about demolishing what she described as a serious misconception.

Among the organizations that the ACLU has offered its legal services to on behalf of challenged or suppressed constitutional rights have been such conservative institutions as the far-right Eagle forum and various chamber of commerce groups, Weinberg pointed out. The state chapter is supported by some 3,200 members and supporters and by private donations, she said.

She recounted particular cases in Tennessee — one involving a self-described "Christ-centered student preacher" in Nashville who had been denied a permit to carry out charitable efforts on behalf of the homeless in public spaces. Weinberg said the ACLU was able to demonstrate that the barrier between church and state that was invoked in this case was based on too literal an interpretation of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights actually guaranteed the apprentice minister's right to do as he was doing, she said.

Another case involved the support of a retired couple — "Reagan Republicans" — in their efforts to maintain voting rights in the course of an extended journey around the country in an RV.

"We are embracing the change of the state," Weinberg said — a declaration suggesting both the ACLU's awareness of changing demographics and changing political attitudes in Tennessee. Contrary to popular supposition, requests for ACLU support were not restricted to the major cities but included rural areas as well, she said.

Commenting that questions of security had become uppermost since the events of 9/11, Weinberg said many elements of the Patriot Act were perfectly acceptable and even necessary, but others were suspect. Asked for an example, she mentioned Section 215 of the act, which, she said, "requires libraries and mental health centers to make available to the feds private information without probable cause" — reading habits in the one case, private medical circumstances in the other.

"Our mantra is 'safe and free,'" she proclaimed, and it was hard to see how that slogan differed at all from those which rang out so loud and clear at the weekend's Memorial Day remembrances.

Indeed, Weinberg's appearance seemed to us to segue very nicely with all those events.

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