Strossen, Nadine M.

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Strossen, Nadine M.

Nadine M. Strossen is a lawyer and law professor who, in 1991, became the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Born August 18, 1950, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Strossen moved with her family to Hopkins, Minnesota, at the age of eight. When she was growing up, she expected to pursue a traditional career, perhaps as a teacher. As an outstanding member of her high school debate team, she was impressed with her teammates' analytical skills and encouraged the boys among them to pursue a legal career. She did not envision a similar path until she became involved in debate and took an interest in feminist causes while at Radcliffe College. After graduating from Radcliffe, she attended Harvard Law School, where she was editor of the law review, and graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1975.

After law school, Strossen was awarded a judicial clerkship at the Minnesota Supreme Court, then practiced law in several law firms. In 1984, she left private practice and began teaching at the School of Law of New York University. She joined the faculty at New York Law School in 1988, specializing in Constitutional Law, federal courts, and Human Rights.

Strossen has been a member of the ACLU since 1985, having served on the organization's executive committee and as its general counsel. The ACLU has adopted controversial, unpopular positions on issues ranging from free speech and Abortion rights to the rights of accused persons. Strossen has used steady, unrelenting persuasion, rather than confrontation, to educate others about the importance of safeguarding the individual liberties that are the heart of the U.S. Constitution.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Strossen and the ACLU found themselves in an ironic and seemingly contradictory position when new ideas about multiculturalism began to take root on college campuses. Proponents of these ideas seemed to espouse goals in common with the ACLU: protecting minority groups from discrimination, bias, hatred, or exclusion. However, in an effort to rid institutions of hatred and harassment, some academic groups adopted speech codes that banned the use of certain words or symbols they considered hateful, demeaning, violent, or merely inconsiderate. Such words were sometimes called "politically incorrect," or not "PC." Strossen and the ACLU vehemently opposed these codes because they, they argued, such codes violate the First Amendment and discourage discussion of important but inflammatory subjects such as race and gender.

Strossen believes that the free and open exchange of ideas, even ideas that may be repugnant, is essential in a free society, and may actually defuse the hatred and bigotry that underlie racist or sexist expressions. However, Strossen maintains that laws imposing enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by bias or hatred differ from speech codes and are constitutional.

Similar to the controversy over speech codes is the debate over whether sexually explicit material can be constitutionally banned. During the 1980s, a group of feminists, led by Andrea Dworkin and catharine a. mackinnon, began a movement to outlaw all sexually explicit materials on the ground that they condone conduct that is violent, dangerous, and degrading to women. Strossen and the ACLU argue that such materials are speech rather than conduct, and that even if most U.S. citizens find them offensive, their publication and dissemination are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Strossen contends that a prohibition on all sexually explicit material is a simplistic solution that only serves to drive the perpetrators underground. She says that Censorship does not solve the underlying problems of violence and discrimination and may ultimately be used as a means of oppressing the very groups it is intended to protect.

Strossen is committed to defending free speech whenever it is threatened, even if she disagrees with the individual or group being targeted. For example, she is opposed to Supreme Court decisions that limit the activities of antiabortion protesters, even though the ACLU has always defended a woman's right to reproductive freedom. Strossen believes that penalties imposed on antiabortion activists infringe on the activists' exercise of free speech.

In addition to working with the ACLU, Strossen has served on the boards of the Fund for Free Expression, the National Coalition against Censorship, the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews, Middle East Watch, Asia Watch, and Human Rights Watch. She is a frequent lecturer on college campuses through the United States and abroad; and serves as political commentator on a variety of national news programs. Strossen also has written extensively in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties, and international human rights. In 2000, New York University Press republished her 1995 book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights with a new introduction by the author.

In the 2000s, Strossen continued to write and comment extensively on constitutional issues while teaching at New York Law School and functioning as president of the ACLU.

Further readings

Strossen, Nadine M. 2000. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights New York: New York Univ. Press.

Walker, Samuel. 1999. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Hate Crime; Pornography.