The ACLU loses its way

June 7, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was always a big fan of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), admiring their single-minded dedication to preserving our civil liberties, most notably those specified by the First Amendment. But they also saved my bacon when I took the government to court for drafting me illegally as a conscientious objector. When I went to they ACLU, they started a class-action suit (I paid nothing) that we won, resulting in the release from service of myself and several thousand other guys.

But about five years ago the ACLU went off the rails, at least in my view. Instead of defending civil liberties and free speech, they began to ponder whether free speech and social justice might be incompatible in some ways, with words actually constituting “violence” that could hurt minorities. The real derailing, resulting in today’s split ACLU, began in August, 2017, when the ACLU won the right for far-right groups to demonstrate in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia instead of outside the center city. That demonstration, of course, led to violence, right-wing marches complete with bigoted slogans, and, eventually, to a white-supremacist protestor driving his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. But I don’t hold the ACLU responsible for the death, though some do.

Although the ACLU was already morphing from a civil rights organization into a social justice organization, the Charlottesville debacle made many members and administrators rethink their mission. And since then the transformation has been more rapid, as described in a New York Times article (click on the screenshot below). It’s not the social-justice mission I object to so much—though some of the ACLU’s stands, like wholeheartedly supporting the right of transgender women, even those medically untreated, to participate in women’s sports, are wrongheaded—but to the fact that there are dozens of organizations already fighting for all forms of social justice, while the ACLU was unique in the singlemindedness of its mission. Now, at least on campus, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is taking over its job, but without the same dosh or resources backing the ACLU.

Although I’ve written about this before, the article has a lot more “inside” quotes both for and against the new mission of the ACLU.

An intro (we’ve met Ira Glasser before):

The A.C.L.U., America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties, has emerged as a muscular and richly funded progressive powerhouse in recent years, taking on the Trump administration in more than 400 lawsuits. But the organization finds itself riven with internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle — unwavering devotion to the First Amendment.

Its national and state staff members debate, often hotly, whether defense of speech conflicts with advocacy for a growing number of progressive causes, including voting rights, reparations, transgender rights and defunding the police.

Those debates mirror those of the larger culture, where a belief in the centrality of free speech to American democracy contends with ever more forceful progressive arguments that hate speech is a form of psychological and even physical violence. These conflicts are unsettling to many of the crusading lawyers who helped build the A.C.L.U.

The organization, said its former director Ira Glasser, risks surrendering its original and unique mission in pursuit of progressive glory.

“There are a lot of organizations fighting eloquently for racial justice and immigrant rights,” Mr. Glasser said. “But there’s only one A.C.L.U. that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”

And here’s the scary bits, which I put in bold:

One hears markedly less from the A.C.L.U. about free speech nowadays. Its annual reports from 2016 to 2019 highlight its role as a leader in the resistance against President Donald J. Trump. But the words “First Amendment” or “free speech” cannot be found. Nor do those reports mention colleges and universities, where the most volatile speech battles often play out.

Since Mr. Trump’s election, the A.C.L.U. budget has nearly tripled to more than $300 million as its corps of lawyers doubled. The same number of lawyers — four — specialize in free speech as a decade ago.

Some A.C.L.U. lawyers and staff members argue that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press — as well as freedom of religion, assembly and petitioning the government — is more often a tool of the powerful than the oppressed.

“First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” said Dennis Parker, who directed the organization’s Racial Justice Program until he left in late 2018.

To which David Cole, the national legal director of the A.C.L.U., rejoined in an interview: “Everything that Black Lives Matter does is possible because of the First Amendment.”

After Charlottesville, the ACLU began its shift, which I’m sure will go further. I wrote at the time about how the organization issued a memo beginning to back off defense of free speech. A quote from today’s NYT piece:

But longtime free speech advocates like Floyd Abrams, perhaps the nation’s leading private First Amendment lawyer, disagreed. The new guidelines left him aghast.

“The last thing they should be thinking about in a case is which ideological side profits,” he said. “The A.C.L.U. that used to exist would have said exactly the opposite.”

And the old ACLU was right. If you don’t keep freedom of expression as an inviolate principle, then speech is subject to the vagaries of not only who controls the government but also, like now, of which ideological views are considered acceptable. Right now we’re seeing this clash play out largely on college campuses, often through official ideological announcements as well as deplatformings, disinvitations, and cancellations of speakers. And this is where FIRE has picked up the torch, for the ACLU doesn’t get much involved. Even here the clash between free speech and offense has led to the University of Chicago’s violating its own principles of academic freedom and free expression.

While the ACLU continues to take traditional civil liberties cases, it’s now sometimes taken stands opposite to what it would done in the past. For example, Chase Strangio, the transgender ACLU staff attorney in charge of that part of the new mission, has called for censorship of Abigail Shrier’s book on gender dysphoria. Censorship—from the ACLU!

To wit:

And the ACLU opposed the Title IX changes made by the Trump administration (one of the few laudable things it did) assuring a fairer process in sexual-misconduct hearings in college.

Further, below you’ll see a tweet from the ACLU of Ohio not only jettisoning the presumption of innocence, but ignoring that the officer criticized here was trying to prevent a murder. It’s madness for the ACLU to issue a statement like this (yes, official tweets are statements) violating not only the known facts, but the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” In fact, from what I know so far, the police officer acted correctly.

I mourn the new direction of the ACLU, but of course that’s the direction that everything is going. While the organization will still do good stuff involving social justice, it will also do questionable stuff, as we’ve just seen. And I can’t think of a single case in which their past defenses of the First Amendment have been deplorable.

If the First Amendment and free speech is to be preserved, it must be preserved for everybody, with a few exceptions already carved out by the courts. We don’t need more exceptions, especially to placate those who equate speech with violence.

Here’s a humorous prescription by Katie Herzog. I agree, though we don’t need an ACLU Jr., as there are already plenty of those organizations.

And here’s a list of my posts, with links, describing and mourning the ACLU’s new direction:

The ACLU backs off defending free speech in favor of promoting social justice

New improved standards proposed for adjudicating sexual misconduct in college; ACLU opposes them for “inappropriately favoring the accused”

The ACLU defends the right of biological men to compete in women’s sports

ACLU continues defending the right of medically untreated men who claim they’re women to compete in women’s sports

ACLU joins lawsuit allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports

h/t for Herzog tweet: Eli

26 thoughts on “The ACLU loses its way

  1. I did not renew my ACLU membership this year.

    When you look at the crazies on the left and right, it sometimes looks like civilization is coming apart at the seams.

    1. Yup, me too. I called the a few months back and told them I quit – so they stopped taking money. They didn’t ask why, which I thought was interesting. I was fully prepared to tell them.

    2. Me too…wow. The fact that we 4 cancelled says a lot statistic-wise. Maybe not, but that’s my first thought. After Manchin doubled down on keeping the filibuster, I think I’ll stop giving money to the dems in general. They can’t get anything done now, so it’s just throwing money down the drain. I’ll be writing that on the fund-raiser letter Senator Murray (D-WA) sent me today. No money for you, unless. As always in this country, the pressure needs to come from the bottom.

  2. Attempting to figure out where the ACLU stands on some issues is somewhat like trying to figure out Joe Manchin. He seems to be in the democratic party but you would never know it by his actions. I think it now is certain that the slight advantage the democrats thought they had in the Senate is long gone. That other Joe, named Biden is essentially a lame duck and maybe worse after the next election.

    1. On Joe Manchin: he’s right on at least this point: pushing through a major change in American domestic policy should be done on a bipartisan basis. Case in point: Obamacare. It probably is a fine policy, helping millions of Americans but it enraged lots of Main Street Americans who hadn’t been consulted and felt betrayed by a political system that might lead to them losing their doctors while increasing their costs. Or so they loudly said. Leading to a decade of Republican rule in much of the country. Manchin represents a state filled with those kinds of constituents. He also seems to represent a governing philosophy that believes that it takes a solid majority of Americans, red as well as blue, in agreement with an approach before Congress adopts a major new domestic policy for the entire country. He’s helping to save Congress and the country from even more partisan discord in the future and should be acknowledged for his courage.

      1. So if I am to understand your take on American politics it is that the Republicans are the bi-partisans. You have misinformed on every issue including the Affordable Health Care event. Obama bent over backwards to get the republicans to buy into that thing and spend countless months wasted attempting to do that. And gave away the farm in the attempt. How many votes did he get? — NONE. So your memory is really bad. Right now, at this moment in politics, the republicans in many states are passing voter restrictions that are criminal in nature and racist as well. The only way to stop this is at the national lever and what says the Senator from W. Virginia. No thanks, to hell with voter rights, I want the republicans to like it first. You are making no sense Suzi.

        1. +1

          Whatever disdain there was for Obamacare was simply the product of the relentless Republican disinformation campaign that continues to be wildly successful with their gullible base, as most recently evidenced by the January 6th insurrection.

        2. You may have misunderstood me, Randall. Not sure. I don’t care which party is in charge of Congress, my principle holds. The country has blue city mice and red country mice. A sweeping domestic policy needs to meet the needs of both kinds of mice. Otherwise we end up with restive voters and President Donald Fucking Trump. And regarding Obamacare, we’ll just have to hold our different perspectives. Spending a few months courting a few members of the opposing party is not building a consensus amongst the city mice and country mice who will have to live with the policy. That kind of effort takes a lot of work. We have different ways to view the same challenge. I love that.

      2. Party is just a proxy for individuals, and a bad proxy at that. A measure that passes the House has the support of legislators representing more than half of the U.S. population. The Senate is obviously not so representative, and gerrymandering is an issue, so the situation is not so cut and dried as ‘if it passed the House, it must be fine.” But even with those caveats, I see no reason to reify “party” as if it’s a citizen needing representation in our government. It isn’t; people deserve to have a say (via representation) in the government, parties do not.

        1. Not so representative is a mouth full. Most of the lower populated rural republican gerrymandered states is a killer for majority rule and democracy throughout this country. It was all caused at the Constitutional Convention before most of these states even existed. But even at that time the small states won the day against the fewer large states. They got all the important votes to go their way with 2 Senators per state instead of numbers based on representation of the people. Even then the state was more important than the person and that means democracy fails. The large states saw that they were getting killed so what did they do. They got the southern states on their side and made it even worse with the 3/5th of a person for each slave. All said the Convention was a disaster in the making and we have the results today.

        2. The Senate is obviously not so representative, and gerrymandering is an issue…

          There are a lot of problems with the Senate’s representation based on population and the fact that Wyoming has as much “power” as California or New York, but gerrymandering is an issue with the House, not the Senate…or the Presidency. Voter suppression is though, and that’s the new game.

  3. That demonstration, of course, led to violence, right-wing marches complete with bigoted slogans, and, eventually, to a white-supremacist protestor driving his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer. But I don’t hold the ACLU responsible for the death, though some do.

    James Alex Fields, Jr., (and, at least in the moral — and possibly even in the legal — sense, the white supremacists who incited him) is responsible for the murder of Heather Heyer. The ACLU is no more responsible for the murder than is the Chrysler Corporation for manufacturing the Dodge Challenger Fields drove.

    1. Thanks, Ken. As a BoR freak, I take the same view as to attempts to hold gun manufacturers responsible for criminal acts. My safe is full of guns; neither I (outside of a range) nor any of their various manufacturers has ever pulled a single trigger on any of them.

  4. I can’t help wondering whether the deformation of the ACLU is due mostly to the efforts of one tireless, obsessive individual, perhaps Chase Strangio. I know some other cases where one or a few individuals succeed in changing the tone of entire organizations or departments—and possibly even whole societies. The impact of a minority (sometimes a tiny minority) of the most intense individuals on their social environment is an old question in History. Would the world between 1933 and 1945 have been different if not for a single intense little man named Adolf?

    1. Without Hitler the Holocaust would probably not have happened. But, even without Hitler, German elites wanted to refight the lost First World War, where Germany lost, if I recall correctly, about 10% of its territory.
      I doubt the ACLU’s change of identity is due to one individual.

      1. There are many ways by which a nation can pursue a revanchist policy; a world war is but one, and the costliest and riskiest.

    2. Chase certainly gets the attention, but if their budget has tripled and their staff has doubled, I have to think it’s probably not just about one person. Maybe the lesson learned here is if you fill your ranks with mostly one political type, don’t be surprised if your corporate culture becomes that type.

  5. Some A.C.L.U. lawyers and staff members argue that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press — as well as freedom of religion, assembly and petitioning the government — is more often a tool of the powerful than the oppressed.

    “First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” said Dennis Parker, who directed the organization’s Racial Justice Program …

    Mr. Parker and his ilk should never forget that it was on the basis of the First Amendment that SCOTUS struck down the ordinance prohibiting peaceful protests on city streets, for the violation of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., found himself in the Birmingham City Jail, whence he wrote his famous missive.

  6. I am not particularly familiar with the ACLU, but the problem of organisations with a fairly broad agenda being taken over by those with a particular and more limited agenda is not particularly uncommon. Easier to take over an existing and probably well funded organisation than to set up your own.

  7. Knife attacks are rarely fatal, usually under 5%, probably much less when medical care is immediately available, Ma’Khia Bryant was shot 4 times (!) at close range by a police officer who was near enough to personally intervene and save the lives of both girls. Bryant was, in my opinion, executed.

  8. I am sure you did a post on the ACLU going after Ayaan Hirsi Ali, putting her their enemies list (or something). I remember quitting the ACLU because of your post on that.

  9. I have a theory that large organisations that are approximately 70 years old or more often lose their original purpose and become the vehicle for the interests of their workers. (Producer Capture). I can think of several organisations (charities, broadcasters, newspapers) that started out with a founding idea that has been sidelined for political concerns.

    Such organisations need to be reorganised, relaunched, or replaced. Certainly not supported.

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