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ACLU President and Ken Starr face off

by Loren Moreno, editor


It was a brawl that was years in the making. On the left—Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of law at New York Law School. On the right—Kenneth W. Starr, the infamous special prosecutor in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations. Roger Fonseca, a local civil liberties attorney, sat between them to prevent any eye gouging.


This was the scene at the fourth Davis Levin First Amendment Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village presented by ACLU-Hawai‘i and the Robert Rees Trust on March 26. Strossen and Starr were opponents in a debate over the First Amendment. While most in the audience were looking for a good old-fashioned chicken fight, what they got was more like a tit for tat between mommy and daddy.

The debate started with Starr and Strossen in basic agreement over congressional intervention into the Terry Shiavo case. Starr said meddling from congress and the president was “unwise.” He also said that, as a conservative, he supports the “culture of life,” but he also supports state rights—which in his view, congress violated. Strossen went much further, saying the intervention was downright unconstitutional.

Fonseca then led the two debaters into a rehashing of the controversial 2000 election, a novel conversation about Ward Churchill, flag burning, and even the anti-abortion truck seen driving aimlessly through Honolulu streets.

Fonseca quickly briefed both on the situation: a truck is often seen cruising the city displaying on its side large grotesque photographs of an aborted fetus. Starr gave the usual “culture of life” answer. Strossen gave an answer unpopular with many in the audience. “That’s an easy one,” she said, “I protect all speech, even what I find abhorant.”

Strossen recalled a preacher in New York who often loiters outside of the ACLU offices knowing ACLU workers must pass. He harasses them daily for their defense of abortion. But she insisted that she protects his and all other’s right to speak freely, even when she is in disagreement.

Strossen and Starr had their share of disagreements as well—mainly on the topic of same-sex marriage. Starr said that Americans should not be quick to decide in favor of it, and that “same-sex marriage needs to be debated and legislated” without haste. He also said marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental to maintaining a healthy society. His comments received a fair share of applause.

Strossen launched back saying Starr’s comments were a “very eloquent and learned exposition of a series of positions” with which she completely disagrees. She said the greatest tradition of American society was laid out in the Declaration of Independence—all people are created equal. She said, “I don’t see the right to choose an abortion or the right to choose your spouse—your life partner—as given to us by the courts. I see them as given to us by virtue of being human being.”

Strossen compared the same-sex marriage struggle to interracial marriage back in the 1960s and ended with a prediction that we’d see gays marrying within the next decade. Her comments received long, thunderous applause.

The same-sex marriage debate was possibly the only heated moment in the debate. And at that, it was more of a match than a fire. In the end, no blood was shed, no eyes were gouged out—Fonseca and the audience experienced a fairly cordial debate. Maybe next year Strossen could face off with former Attorny General John Ashcroft.


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