When I spoke at American University in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2004, a number of those in the audience engaged in a variety of antics, as described by the school newspaper, the Eagle:
As Pipes took the podium at approximately 8:15 p.m., almost a third of the crowd of 150 took out black pieces of cloth and, in unison, wrapped the cloth around their mouths as a sort of "gag." This was apparently meant as a form of symbolic and silent protest of Pipes's ideas.
Ten minutes into the lecture, and again in unison, the protesters stood up, turned and knelt in their chairs to face the crowd behind them. Ten minutes later, the protesters took out signs that denounced "Campus Watch," an initiative begun by Pipes that monitors and acts as a watchdog against Middle Eastern Studies in North America and attempts to improve them.
I mention this because the leader of the disrupters was at the front of the room. When he brought out his gag, the others did too. When he stood up, so did the others. When he pulled out a sign, the others followed. And when he walked out, so did the others.
Here's a description of this person, from someone who wrote me after the event:
I was in the audience for your lecture at AU on January 20th, and was in the third row of seats behind the "leader" of the disruption (aisle seat, on your left). He was fidgety before the lecture began, looking around the room and making hand motions to people further back in the room, so I paid a fair amount of attention to him.
When he gave the high sign his group put on their black gags, and then again on his lead the group stood up and turned their backs on you. As he stood there he was blocking my view, and I commented to him, "You'd make a better door than a window, buddy," at which point he lowered himself to kneel in his seat. I got a good look at his face.
My correspondent later managed to take a picture of this lead disrupter:
Well, it turns out that this disrupter has a name and a profession. He is Matt Bowles, National Field Organizer at the American Civil Liberties Union. Here is his professional picture, posted at the website of the Minnesota affiliate of the ACLU in conjunction with his ACLU work:
(Bowles, not surprisingly, has strong views on the Middle East, and appears obsessively to despise Israel. His magnum opus on the subject is an article titled "US Aid: Lifeblood of the Occupation," which argues for the importance of U.S. aid in funding what the author terms "Israel's colonial apartheid regime.")
Is the American Civil Liberties Union ("our nation's guardian of liberty") now in the business of field organizing disruptions of academic talks at universities? Curious to find out, I sent Bowles the following note on Jan. 26, 2004:
Dear Mr. Bowles:
I am planning to write something on my talk at American University on January 20th and the fact that you, the ACLU's National Field Organizer, led the disruption there.
Would you provide me with a short statement justifying your action there? And could you explain if you were there on staff time or your own time?
If so, I would appreciate your statement by close of business tomorrow, January 27.
To which Bowles replied on Jan. 27, 2004:
I was at the protest as an individual concerned citizen
Not quite ready to take this at face value, I wrote that same day, Jan. 27, 2004 to Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director, asking him to verify Bowles' statement:
Dear Mr. Romero:
Matt Bowles, ACLU's National Field Organizer, led the disruption at a talk I gave at American University on Jan. 20, 2004.
When I asked him if he did this in his ACLU or private capacity, he indicated it was in the latter. Could you please confirm the accuracy of this statement?
I would appreciate hearing from you by close of business, January 31.
Not receiving a reply to an e-mail of the above note, I sent the same text via the U.S. Postal Service, but again, one and a half months later, have not heard back.
I wonder what this silence signifies and if Bowles really was free-lancing at the American University event. (March 15, 2004)
March 17, 2004 update: I am amused to note, informed by David Bernstein of the George Mason University School of Law, who commented on this entry, that Matt Bowles has apparently moved on to a new job at the ACLU, being identified at March 2004 events as that organization's "Terrorism and Civil Liberties coordinator." Comment: I had not realized until now that a single person could simultaneously coordinate both those activities.
March 18, 2004 update: Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director, replied to my letter today, as follows:
Dear Mr. Pipes:
Your comments regarding the ACLU on your Weblog, danielpipes.org, were recently brought to my attention. Contrary to the assertion you make there, I am not in receipt of any e-mail of January 27, 2004 from you. ...
In response to the question posed on your Weblog, Mr. Bowles was exercising his First Amendment rights in his personal capacity. The ACLU does not attempt to control, nor are we responsible, for actions taken by our employees on their own time. Additionally, as a matter of practice and policy, the ACLU does not express a position on issues outside the jurisdiction of the US.
Anthony D. Romero
Comment: It's particularly gallling that the director of an organization dedicated to free speech considers the disruption of a talk to be free speech.
March 19, 2004 update: There's an interesting and informed debate about the propriety of the Bowles-led disruption of my talk, spurred by the Bernstein analysis noted above. Of particular interest is this comment, from "hapan605" (with spelling corrected):
I know a few people at American who went to the Pipes speech. Of the four I know (two on livejournal.com), three of them said that the problem wasn't so much the protesting so much as the fact that is really wasn't silent; during the "transitions" to the two protest positions (mouth gags then kneeling) many of the protesters it seemed made an intentional effort to be as loud as possible, doing everything from stomping feet, to making gagging noises when putting on the "gags". If the event was actually a "silent" protest, then I would have no problem. But with a block of people making noticeable sounds during the course of a speech (that group including a man who works for an organization that "may disagree with what you are saying but would die for your right to say it") is slightly irksome.
March 17, 2005 update: Richard M. Hartzman, Esq., of New York City, sent a letter to Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, dated Feb. 21, regarding the cancellation of his membership:
Dear Ms. Strossen:
As a long-time ACLU member who has decided not to renew my membership, I believe it incumbent for me to explain why to the organization's leader. I do not make this decision lightly. My first published writing was for the ACLU's Privacy Report in the 1970s, and though my politics have grown more conservative since then, I still subscribe to the organization's mission of protecting civil liberties. And though I may believe that the ACLU sometimes goes too far, there is yet something noble about civil libertarians defending neo-Nazi marchers in Skokie despite their repugnance – and therefore reason to continue to support the organization.
But in the past year, activities of at least one high-level staff member, and of the NYCLU are being carried out in pursuit of an agenda which is contrary to the ACLU's central mission, leading me to conclude that the organization has lost its compass.
According to the ACLU of Minnesota, Matt Bowles is your National Field Coordinator. In an incident which took place early last year - an incident about which I would presume you have heard - Mr. Bowles took the lead in disrupting a presentation by Daniel Pipes at the American University in Washington. He has apparently said that he participated in the disruption "as an individual concerned citizen." Even so, I consider this to be an irresponsible and reprehensible act by someone in his position at the ACLU.
The number one liberty listed in the ACLU's on-line mission statement is freedom of speech. Should not the staff of the ACLU be working to protect the right of Mr. Pipes to speak, rather than disrupting that right? Why should neo-Nazis be defended by the ACLU but not Mr. Pipes? Does he have an inferior right because of his politics?
It matters not that Mr. Bowles claims to have acted in his private capacity. His own principles, as demonstrated by his activities, are in conflict with those of the ACLU's – unless one believes that the right of free speech includes the right to suppress another's free speech. I do not. Unfortunately there are all too many who do not see the contradictory nature of their professed views. But while this kind of muddled thinking may be no more than something to rue as a general proposition, it becomes a significant concern for someone in a higher level position at the ACLU. Those who are the face of the ACLU do not have the luxury of acting contrary to its principles, even as private individuals. Whether or not they act in their private capacity, they are making a statement about what is acceptable as a civil libertarian and what is not. Mr. Bowles' professional duties are not separable from his personal activities. If he wishes to act in a way contrary to the mission of the ACLU, he should not be associated with it.
Were Mr. Bowles a low level staffer, one could chalk it up to an isolated incident by an immature individual who may come to a better understanding. But he is not, and I do not believe that he could have been appointed to his position of National Field Coordinator without many others in the organization being aware of his views. That means to me that the staff at the ACLU see little or no problem which such attitudes. If so, I have no confidence that the staff are carrying out their civil liberties mission with a suitable degree of balance, understanding, and responsibility.
This was demonstrated to me, though in a less obvious fashion, last summer in the issue of the NYCLU's newsletter published prior to the Republican Party Convention in New York City. In a largish box on one page there was a listing of dates and times for various demonstrations. What I expected to accompany the listing was information about monitoring those demonstrations, related functions to be carried out in defending demonstrators, and perhaps training sessions for volunteers, all appropriate for the organization. But there was no such information – only the bare listing. The implicit message to me was that the newsletter was not issuing a call for monitoring and defense of demonstrators, but rather a call to join in the demonstrations. In so doing, the organization has crossed the line between defending civil liberties and promoting a political agenda.
If I am to support organizations that have a political agenda, I prefer to support other organizations. The politics of Mr. Bowles, as revealed by writings of his that appear on the internet, and those of the NYCLU are not my politics. Thus I have come to a parting of the ways. I am enclosing my annual renewal form marked "please cancel my membership." I request that you pass it on to your membership office and ask them to remove my name from their mailing list.
Apr. 11, 2006 update: Here is a bio for Bowles, giving a fuller taste of his affiliations:
Matt Bowles is currently a National Field Organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. He had spent last three years mobilizing civil liberties activists nationwide to defend their local communities from government abuse and to pressure Congress to roll back repressive post 9-11 policies.
Mr. Bowles has published works in Al Ahram Weekly, COPRED Chronicle, Left Turn Magazine, Peace and Justice Studies Association Newsletter, Sustain Solidarity Letter, and Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. His writings have also appeared in Censored 2004 and Middle East: Current Controversies. Additionally, he has lectured widely at colleges and universities, interviewed with various media, and presented at the following conferences: American Sociological Association, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development, Council on American Islamic Relations, Cry Justice: Activism, Organizing and Civil Liberties After 9-11, Irish Northern Aid Committee, Islamic Society of North America, National Conference on Organized Resistance, North Central Sociological Association, Palestine Solidarity Movement, Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Union of Arab Student Associations.