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!
Here is an ACLU lawyer saying their goal is to stop the circulation of books and ideas…
In case you were wondering how free speech is doing. pic.twitter.com/jIGhCSEAbZ
— Wokal Distance (@wokal_distance) November 13, 2020
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.
The systems that allowed George Floyd to be murdered remain FULLY intact. Moments after we celebrated a win for police accountability in Minneapolis, news broke that @ColumbusPolice murdered a 15 year old Black girl. Her name was Ma'Khia Bryant. Say her name. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/tufTaia9lR
— ACLU of Ohio (@acluohio) April 21, 2021
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.
The ACLU should split into two groups: ACLU Sr, which fights for free speech rights, and ACLU Jr, which fights against them https://t.co/qXMIV0x9Be
— Katie Herzog (@kittypurrzog) June 6, 2021
And here’s a list of my posts, with links, describing and mourning the ACLU’s new direction:
h/t for Herzog tweet: Eli