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Magazines > Information Today > December 2017

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Information Today
Vol. 31 No. 10 — December 2017
DATABASE REVIEW
ACLU, SPLC, and CBO Produce Rich Data Troves
by Mick O'Leary


The ACLU, the SPLC, and the CBO have become embroiled in fierce, highly partisan political squabbles. And yet, the attention given to these headline-grabbing spats obscures the deep and valuable content collections—news, analysis, commentary, media, and data—that each organization produces.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, the nation’s political media have been generating 100-year-flood levels of content. The unofficial start date was June 16, 2015, when the current president announced his candidacy. The unique and highly provocative nature of the individual, his campaign, and his administration has unleashed torrents of reports, analyses, critiques, and defenses.

Much of this is from partisan sources, but three organizations with strictly nonpartisan missions are in the thick of the fray. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are central players in some of the fiercest and most prominent political battles: The ACLU is carrying out its announced countermeasures on the administration’s multiple threats to civil liberties, the SPLC is spotlighting a national surge in hate crimes, and the CBO finds itself in the center of controversial legislative battles.

Traffic on the websites of each organization has at various times surged, representing intense interest in their respective controversies. This may have an unintended but beneficial outcome, because all three organizations, beyond the headlines, are conscientious producers of widely useful content.

ACLU: Free Speech and More

The ACLU (aclu.org) was founded in 1920 in response to post-World War I civil rights abuses. Since then, it has been well-known for its relentless and effective litigation efforts. It is supported solely by organizational and individual donations. The ACLU is often associated with left-oriented causes, but its nonpartisan stance has sometimes startled its proponents. One of its most high-profile actions occurred in 1978, when it supported the free speech rights of Nazi sympathizers to march in Skokie, Ill., the home of many Holocaust survivors. Recently, it defended the rights of the participants in the right-wing, Nazi-affiliated protest march in Charlottesville, Va.

The day after the 2016 election, the ACLU announced that it would fight the anti-civil liberty program of the president-elect’s campaign, and it has followed up with a steady stream of litigation. Since the election, ACLU membership has quadrupled.

Although the ACLU is best known for its free speech litigation, its website documents its much wider program. It supports 18 individual issues, including religious freedom; criminal, juvenile, and prisoners’ justice; the rights of women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community; and national security and privacy concerns. For each issue, there is extensive documentation of its efforts, including litigation at the Supreme Court and other jurisdictions, as well as news reports, analytical and historical studies, videos, and podcasts. Most of this content goes back to the mid-1990s and is well-organized, with good browse and search functions.

For the more immediate occasion when you are confronted by a police officer or other official, the site has the section Know Your Rights (aclu.org/know-your-rights). It explains your rights and recommends responses during street and auto stops, airline travel, and other times when you encounter the force of the state … and it’s not going your way.

The SPLC’s Long Hate Battle

Over the past 2 years, the occurrence of hate crimes in the U.S. has increased after a multiyear decline. This is well-documented by news reports, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, and, most prominently, the SPLC (splcenter.org), which has been studying U.S. hate movements for decades. Traffic on its site surged after the 2016 presidential election.

The SPLC was founded in 1971 by two civil rights lawyers to reinforce the gains made during the civil rights movement. Over the years, it has won landmark cases and pursued other advocacy programs. It is supported by donations, has no government funding, and accepts no fees from its clients. It has broadened its mission to include criminal, economic, immigrant, children’s, and LGBT+ justice issues.

The SPLC’s studies on hate groups are widely cited. Its Hate Map (www.splcenter.org/hate-map) is a database of more than 900 U.S. hate groups. Most are right-wing, with mostly white followers, but the Hate Map also documents other kinds, including several black separatist groups. It shows that the number of hate groups—917 in 2016—has been steadily increasing since 2014. Hatewatch (www.splcenter.org/hatewatch) is a blog/news service that documents hate incidents and the activities of hate groups. Extremist Files (www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files) provides profiles of 50 groups, 120 hate movement leaders, and 18 hate ideologies.

The SPLC also offers Intelligence Report (www.splcenter.org/intelligence-report), a quarterly journal that publishes longer-form content than Hatewatch. There is full documentation of the SPLC’s litigation efforts and studies on extremism, hate groups, injustice, and advocacy. The site is clearly and logically organized, with good browse and search functions.

CBO: Following the Money

Compared to the advocacy-driven ACLU and SPLC, the once obscure CBO (cbo.gov) would seem an unlikely candidate for a central role in today’s political firestorms. The CBO was established in 1975 to produce “independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.” It is best known for its responsibility to “score” proposed congressional legislation by forecasting the bill’s effects on spending and revenue over time. With a long-standing reputation for meticulous and nonpartisan work, the CBO’s scoring has been an important, if low-profile, factor in the legislative process; the expression “wait for the CBO score” commonly occurs in reporting on pending legislation.

That was then, before today’s hyper-partisan legislative environ- ment. Traffic on the CBO site surged in the first half of 2017, as the new Congress embarked upon a controversial legislative agenda. The integrity and validity of CBO scoring have come under attack by legislators and lobbyists who—surprise, surprise—don’t like the scores. The controversy centers on the differences between “static” and “dynamic” scoring (but, because Database Review is reader-friendly, I’ll forego the murky details).

There is much other important CBO work that merits notice. It publishes an authoritative series of budget and economic analyses, with historical data and several detailed forecasts: The Budget series covers outlooks for the federal budget, and the Economic series covers gross domestic product and other important economic indicators.

The CBO scrutinizes the federal budget upon its submission and throughout the fiscal year. It also produces numerous topical budget sector studies, covering defense, Social Security, taxes, etc. All of this is easy to find and understand, with a well-organized site and lots of clearly written documentation.


Mick O’Leary has been reviewing databases and websites for Information Today since 1987. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.