I recently kvetched about the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU’s) movement against defending freedom of speech and towards social-justice initiatives, objecting both to the kinds of issues that the ACLU is now tackling (taking the side of those offended by “hate speech” and rejecting defense of the First Amendment), and to their entering an area that is already full of other people doing similar work. (The only organization doing anything similar to the ACLU is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—FIRE), which formed to fill the lacuna left when the ACLU stopped working on college issues.)
I was thus pleased to see NYT op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg take a similar position in her Monday column (click on screenshot below). In her view, the ACLU’s defense of “awful speech” is essential in ensuring social justice:
It’s a short piece and can be summarized briefly. First, this isn’t the first time the ACLU has been divided (there was internecine dissent in 1978 over the ACLU’s defense of the Klan.) Still, it’s pretty clear there’s a generational split over free speech, both in the A.C.L.U. and in liberalism writ large.
Second, people seem slow to realize that defense of free speech is essential for guaranteeing civil liberties and the rights of minorities. Without the First Amendment, Black Lives Matter protests, for example, could have been banned, and protests are being banned now. Goldberg:
I wonder, however, if this divide could soon fade away, because events in the wider world are conspiring to remind the American left how dependent it is on a robust First Amendment. Civil libertarians have always argued that even if privileged people enjoy more free speech protections in practice, erosions of free speech guarantees will always fall hardest on the most marginalized. This is now happening all over the country.
She gives two examples. One is the spate of anti-protest bills being passed by many states:
In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.
I’m not sure about the legality of punishing people for being convicted of unlawful assembly, but it seems like a form of double jeopardy—like denying convicted felons who have served their sentences the right to vote. The Florida drivers’ law seem simply ridiculous.
Goldberg’s second example is the widespread passing of laws prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. (Trump started this by banning CRT training for federal employees.) While I have my beefs about some tenets of CRT, I don’t think it’s the place of any government, federal or state, to declare what cannot be taught. (Evolution is an exception, for that is an empirically supported theory ubiquitously accepted by scientists.) Curricula fall under the ambit of schools and school boards.
As Goldberg says, “the credibility of your defenders matters”. What she means is that organizations that are evenhanded in defending the First Amendment or free expression are organizations most likely to be listened to and respected. For they are following a principle, not an ideology.
Goldberg ends her piece with a nice aphorism:
. . . in the end, the A.C.L.U. has usually, in the teeth of internal conflict, stuck to its mission. Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.
My only beef here is her repeated claim that the ACLU is sticking to its mission. Yes, it is to some extent, but it’s increasingly abandoning the classical mission of defending everyone’s speech in favor of going after those said to purvey “hate speech.” See my kvetch for examples of the latter.