Head of the ACLU makes a mockery of free speech at a Princeton orientation event designed to promote free speech

October 2, 2023 • 10:00 am

According to the conservative National Review, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), didn’t exactly adhere to his organization’s principles (i.e., “defend the civil liberties of all Americans”) when he gave a talk on free speech at a mandatory first-year orientation event at Princeton University. Author Matthew Wilson, who attended the event “as an undergraduate academic advisor for freshman and out of [his] own personal curiosity”, reported on Romero’s talk for the magazine.

Now you know, if you’ve followed the ACLU (or my many posts on an organization I once worshiped), that it’s getting woke, and is now more interested in defending the rights of progressives than of conservatives. This was highlighted in a 2021 article in the New York Times, which quotes former ACLU director Ira Glasser, a man who didn’t tilt the organization’s efforts towards one wing of politics. Here’s a bit from the NYT piece that quotes Glasser, who clearly doesn’t like the “new” ACLU:

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.”

. . . .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.

See also the 2022 article in The Atlantic by Laura Bazelon, “The ACLU has lost its way,” and especially this leaked ACLU memo from 2018, showing that even five years ago the organization  was pondering favoring civil rights cases involving social-justice issues over those involving less “progressive” causes. Well, the ACLU now taken that Left-favoring direction. One notable instance is its dogged insistence (evidenced in tweets and briefs) that transgender women should be allowed to compete against biological women in athletics. In this case the ACLU has not only trampled on fairness, but also on science.

This new direction of the ACLU was the subject of a snarky tweet by Katie Herzog:

Actually, there is an ACLU Jr. already: it’s called the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Even the Freedom from Religion Foundation seems to be going woke, trying to insinuate its politics into trans/sports issues—on the side of the ACLU—by pretending that denying the “right” of trans women to compete against biological women is simply one aspect of “Christian Nationalism”, a bogus claim. (I don’t even know what “Christian Nationalism” is.) But if you construe everything antiwoke as an aspect of “Christian Nationalism,” which is what the FFRF seems to be doing now, then of course you can pretend to stay within your mission—ostensibly to keep church and state apart—and still allow your mission to creep into areas that don’t involve church-state issues. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the FFRF’s honorary directors.)  There is no civil liberties organization, it seems, now devoted to defending the Constitutional rights of all Americans, no matter their political stripe.

If you haven’t used up your National Review quota of free monthly articles, you can see the report by clicking on the screenshot below. Note that I can’t find any video of Romero’s talk online, and the Daily Princetonian reports that Romero gave a second talk at the Princeton Progerssive Law Society but doesn’t mention any tilt towards progressive causes in his remarks.  Nevertheless, I’ll give an excerpt from the National Review‘s article assuming that Wilson (a Princeton alumnus) has reported accurately.

Excerpts from the NR piece:

On August 29, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke alongside Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber at a mandatory freshman-orientation event ostensibly meant to highlight the university’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom. More than 1,000 Princeton freshmen were required to attend this event as a part of their regular sequence of orientation activities; I was there as an undergraduate academic adviser for freshmen and out of my own personal curiosity.

In a word, the event’s content was an embarrassment. A new class of Princeton students were subject to an hour-long, highly ideological exhortation by Romero, who repeatedly urged them to embrace progressive ideas and badly misrepresented the importance of free speech by rooting its value in its ability to advance socially progressive causes.

Today’s enemies of free speech and civil liberties, Romero told Princeton freshmen, are those who deny the “right to gender-affirming health care,” those “attacking critical race theory,” and proponents of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law. According to Romero, these are the real “freedom-of-expression issues” of our day — the work of right-wing villains who want our society to “go back to the medieval period.”

At various points during the event, Romero derided former president Bill Clinton as a “homophobe” for signing the Defense of Marriage Act into law, announced that “a major way” he “got into Princeton” was affirmative action, and proclaimed that the ACLU was “intersectional before we knew the word ‘intersectional.’” He also bragged — to cheers and applause from students — about the ACLU’s record, under his leadership, of “suing the Trump administration 434 times.” When Eisgruber asked him about his position on “cancel culture,” Romero declined to offer an unqualified repudiation, instead telling students that there is “an element of the response of cancel culture” that is “positive” because “we shouldn’t put up with,” among other things, oppressive structures of “heteronormativity” and “the patriarchy that’s just bludgeoning people’s gender identities.”

This is definitely not the viewpoint-neutral ACLU I admired for so many years; the remarks go far beyond defending the civil liberties of everyone.  The ACLU appears, as we’ve long suspected, to have been ideologically captured.

I’ll give one more quote, as the article is quite clear that Romero was getting plaudits from the students by catering to their progressive bent:

Where even to begin? Romero’s purported defense of free speech was chock-full of pure sophistry and was altogether tainted by his naked ideological commitments. In associating the value of free speech with its perceived ability to serve his progressive social agenda, Romero butchered the real importance of preserving a robust free-speech culture on college campuses. Free speech is indeed an instrument — not, as Romero repeatedly suggested, to conveniently enshrine the dogmas and doctrines of social progressivism, but to facilitate the noble ends of truth-seeking scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Interestingly, the university’s official press release about the event excluded all mention of Romero’s ideologically charged statements, ad hominem insults, and blatant political advocacy. The release slyly, and dishonestly, insinuated that Romero’s position on cancel culture was uniformly negative. It omitted his efforts to associate the value of free speech with its utility to further progressive causes. At the same time, the university in the release shamelessly claimed that “Princeton continues to support a culture of free expression on campus” — when just last year a distinguished professor was subject to a highly politicized disciplinary process and ultimately fired after campus activists demanded that he be punished for his unpopular views. And, as it stands, nothing even remotely resembling a “culture of free expression” persists among Princeton students.

Urging students to cancel “heteronormativity” and push back against “homophobes” (in other words: against anyone whose deeply held moral or religious beliefs preclude them from endorsing Romero’s secular progressive positions on gender and sexuality) does nothing to advance or promote Princeton’s “fundamental commitment” to “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” On the contrary, such rhetoric plainly encourages self-censorship and ideological conformity — phenomena profoundly antithetical to a campus culture of open discourse and freedom of thought — to take root among students and flourish.

Now of course I agree with most of the causes espoused by Romero, but that’s not the point. The man is in charge of an organization devoted to promoting free speech as the primary civil liberty, and the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee free speech for only one side of the political spectrum.  Romero apparently gave the impression to Princeton students that free speech involves defending progressive causes, and that’s bogus. His talk also catered to the rising view that anti-progressive speech is “hate speech”, not worth defending. John Stuart Mill would be whirling in his grave.

As for Princeton, well, it’s supposed to espouse the Chicago Principles of Free Speech. but it’s ranked “below average” on FIRE’s ranking of colleges in their support of free speech—given a rating of 39 out of 100 and a rank of out of  187 out of 248 colleges assessed.

One could argue that by allowing Romero to say what he wanted, Princeton was promulgating free speech, but remember that his talk was a mandatory session for students to learn about freedom of speech. Given that, Princeton should have either vetted his remarks (hard to do), or had a university-sponsored event that actually presented the First Amendment as it was intended and how it’s been interpreted.  This was not just a talk, but part of Princeton’s curriculum.

As for the ACLU, I can’t speak frankly about what I think about it given that this is a family-friendly website. I’ll just note that I want nothing to do with it except to call it out when it keeps getting woker and woker.

21 thoughts on “Head of the ACLU makes a mockery of free speech at a Princeton orientation event designed to promote free speech

  1. Today’s enemies of free speech and civil liberties, Romero told Princeton freshmen, are those who deny the “right to gender-affirming health care,” …

    Next, the ACLU will be attacking those who want to deny young girls the right to FGM.

    1. In the 1980’s there were already far-left people at my undergraduate college who said that opposing FGM, for people born where it was traditionally practiced, was a form of imperialism. Aspects of identity politics were tiny but visible even then.

  2. One wonders whether any of these academics have actually read the First Amendment or John Stuart Mill.

    And it is alarming that the free speech principle has to be defended now against attacks from both the left and right

    1. Yes, I have that in my post; didn’t you read it?

      And, given the failure of Princeton to give an accurate account of Romero’s talk, I’m not so sure that the Daily Princetonian would give an accurate account of this one.

  3. At the risk of repeating myself, WHY do we have the procession of ACLU jr, Oberlin, Hamline, Royal Society of Chemistry, American Anthropological Association, the idiotic lists of disapproved words at universities, etc. etc. etc. . How do wokely believers capture organizations and/or their verbiage? Where is a psychological/sociological diagnosis of these behaviors? Analyses of the philosophical issues, as in Lindsay and Pluckrose’s “Cynical Theories”, don’t adequately explain the capture process.

    1. Peter Boghossian, the philosopher who wrote A Manual for Creating Atheists, has discussed how he institutional capture works.
      He used to be at Oregon State Univ., but quit, calling it a “social justice factory” and complaining about limitations on free speech and free inquiry. So he’s seen institutional capture first-hand.
      He tries to teach people how to think for themselves.
      He’s working on founding a university that does promote free speech, the University of Austin, along with the philosopher Kathleen Stock and some other people.

      1. Right, except that Peter was at Portland State, not Oregon State, which is in Corvallis.
        Interestingly, Oregon State scores pretty high in the FIRE free speech rankings. So,
        comparison of how things developed in these two institutions might be illuminating in regard to the dynamics of woke capture.

  4. Oh no! (in a thin voice), the FFRF too? Why does the US left keeps digging deeper into foxhole? I’m not 100% sure, but somehow I suspect it is a Russian operation.
    I don’t say he is, but I would not be surprised at all if, say, Matt Gaetz turns out to be on the Russian pay roll.

    1. I suppose you are joking that the Russians are behind it. However, it is undeniable that they are quite happy about wokeism. It does their propaganda for them, and weakens their foes.

  5. Friends in the Chicago area may be interested to know that former president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, will be speaking at Northeastern Illinois University on October 10th. I’m not available to attend, but I will be checking the NEIU Website after the event to see if there’s a video recording of her lecture.

  6. There are lots of organizations that are doing good work defending free speech and promoting free thought, and/or not “woke”- captured, and they need support and money a lot more than the ACLU does.
    The Center for Inquiry does good work, like suing CVS for deceiving customers with their homeopathic products.
    The Women’s Liberation Front is a feminist organization that is very much NOT woke 🙂
    I was happy to see that Richard Dawkins has been doing interviews promoting the importance of biological sex, so the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is unlikely to be “woke”-captured 🙂
    Similarly Peter Boghossian; and he’s working on starting the “University of Austin”, as a place which will support free speech and free inquiry.
    Scott Newgent started trevoices.org, to fight against transing children. He’s a transman who transitioned as an adult, but thinks children are way too young to make such grave decisions.
    On the other side, Princeton alums could quit supporting it, over its “woke” problems.
    Where one’s dollars go and don’t go, is one way to change the world.

    1. As early as the mid-2000s many local ACLU board members saw the writing on the wall and resigned. Some of them started a new organization, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Although small, BRDC has assumed the previous role of ACLU in defending free speech and other First Amendment issues. Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and Women’s Declaration International (WDI) are leading the fight against transgender extremism. LGB Alliance fights for LGB rights (“LGB without the T.”) Genspect was founded by parents whose kids had been captured by trans ideology. We have many groups still fighting the good fight.

  7. Similar to Jerry, the lawyers from the ACLU were among the heroes of my youth — especially the young Jewish lawyers, like David Goldberg, who defended the First Amendment Speech Clause rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, IL, despite the mounting pressure from some within their own community and the mass resignations by many of the organization’s members. Standing on principle under such circumstance is among the noblest of all human endeavors.

    It’s heartbreaking to watch what’s happened to the Union.

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