by Paul Edwards
I was only 15 years old when ACB was born in 1961. I did not become involved, even at the state level, until I was 30. Among many other things, what attracted me about ACB were what I perceived to be the principles that I believed and believe are at its heart. To understand these core values, a little history is in order. Those who broke away from the NFB did so because they believed that two bad things were happening. First, they were convinced that a few people at the top of the organization on the national board were taking over. They believed that the rights of affiliates were being explicitly abrogated and, despite repeated efforts to fix the problem, it only got worse. Individuals and affiliates were expelled from the NFB and, in framing ACB, the constitution and practice were intended to make sure that this would not happen here. As a result, affiliates were imbued with a lot of power, and the board and anybody the board hired were not. The board of publications was set up to make sure that a free press was maintained in ACB. The leadership of ACB has never had the power to tell the BOP what should be published and what should not.
When people describe ACB's beginnings, these are the elements that receive the most attention. I believe that there is explicit and implicit evidence to suggest that there is another core value that we do not discuss as often that is at the heart of what we do. I believe that those who formed ACB wanted individuals and members to be empowered. I believe they felt it was just as important to protect the rights of individual members as it was to assure the paramountcy of affiliates. Our resolutions committee, the way debate is to be handled and the fact that each member who is present at the convention has a vote all point in this direction. I think that the value placed on what the convention says also points in this direction. All the folks who are present and voting make the rules and approve the policies that govern ACB.
When I was president of ACB, I must tell you that I found our constitution difficult. Unlike the Federation, ACB has to consult others before its leadership can make decisions. If we are moving in a direction different from that which our convention has espoused, we have to be even more circumspect in deciding what we can or should do.
On the face of it, it wouldn't seem like there ought to be much difficulty reconciling these two values. But, all through its history, this has been the most difficult issue with which we have had to deal. How should the board respond if there is clear evidence that an affiliate's leaders are misusing their power? What responsibility does the board have to protect the rights of members of ACB who are also members of affiliates who are being denied access to communication channels and who are arbitrarily removed from lists because they object to the actions of leaders? Which is more important: the autonomy of affiliates or protecting individual members from arbitrary mistreatment?
There have been lots of instances in our past where those issues have either been implicitly or explicitly in play and our board has usually taken steps that eventually solve the problem. Our Iowa affiliate felt that the board exceeded its authority when we took a stand regarding dog guides several years ago. We felt that the principle was more important than affiliate rights. In several instances, where there has been dissension within an affiliate, the board has opted to approve the creation of more than one affiliate in a particular geographical area. We did this in Kentucky, Virginia, Hawaii, and California. The circumstances in each case were different and I am not trying at all to suggest that one size fits all. Our convention has opted based on a recommendation from our board and our credentials committee to take votes away from Missouri because it is our belief as an organization that their constitution arbitrarily excludes qualified people from membership. In all of these cases, we were dealing with situations where the rights of affiliates have been limited for what the board and, in at least one case, the membership of our organization considered sufficient reason to justify stepping on the autonomy of individual affiliates.
I am president of a state affiliate. I have been president of two special-interest affiliates. I have also been president of ACB. I happen to believe that our board and our membership have an obligation to uphold the values that are at the core of what our organization represents. At the very heart of the American Constitution is the first amendment which, among other things, guarantees people the right to speak freely and be heard. Our country has gone to war to uphold the values that are subsumed under the name of democracy. We have opposed totalitarian regimes which have mistreated and brutalized those who did not agree with those in power! I am convinced that our organization regards free speech and reasoned debate as inherent components of what we do! As president I would not have dared to cut somebody off just because I disagreed with what he or she was saying. We abide by Robert's Rules because we believe that we cannot arbitrarily limit discussion.
For me, then, there comes a point when the rights of affiliates must take second place. For me, that place is when an affiliate is behaving in ways that fundamentally contradict the principles that underpin who we are. I believe it is up to the board in each case to decide when we have reached that place. I also believe that, if our members disagree, they must take action at the convention. I also am convinced that our constitution must be more explicit about the responsibility of our organization to uphold the rights of individuals and minorities to be treated equitably by our affiliates! Obviously, the principle of affiliate autonomy is important. We have, I think, moved a little away from the place where we were once. We now have an executive director instead of a national representative. I think there is a general recognition that our national organization must sometimes take positions with which our affiliates may disagree. I truly do support a balance between these two principles. However, I am bothered when any affiliate uses its autonomy to challenge the right of ACB to uphold the values that make us who we are.