Principles Are Stubborn Things
August 24, 2017
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) poses a tough challenge to anyone who believes in individual liberty but doesn’t believe the Constitution to be a suicide pact. Many of the ACLU’s principles are unobjectionable, even essential. But the way it applies them is almost always counterproductive, even dangerous.
Today’s ACLU has gone off the rails attacking religious liberty, ignoring victims of crime and undermining the security of our very system of ordered liberty, without which no constitutional liberties would survive.
The organization whose signature issue was free speech is now finding that stating that lofty principle is much easier than defending it.
Free speech is a bedrock American value protected by the First Amendment. While conservatives didn’t always appreciate the importance of protecting even offensive speech, today, in the age of political correctness, they often must rely on the Constitution to protect their right to speak freely.
The ACLU once steadfastly backed the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. In 1978, the organization famously defended even the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large number of Holocaust survivors.
That was a tough stand to take, but the principle went back to 1934 (when Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany). The ACLU board then explained: “To those who support suppressing propaganda they hate, we ask — where do you draw the line?”
Only unpopular speech requires legal protection. Majorities face few challenges when exercising their constitutional rights. Nevertheless, a robust First Amendment is in their interest because they cannot be sure that they won’t someday be in the minority. Which is where those who believe in traditional moral and political values find themselves today.
The original modern defender of free speech, the ACLU is being increasingly buffeted by the forces of political correctness. Last month, an ACLU attorney objected to defending the First Amendment rights of libertarian firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos since “his actions have consequences for people that I care about and for me.” So much for acting out of high principle.
The organization’s defense of the right of white supremacists to demonstrate led to the resignation of some officials at state affiliates. Afterward, K-Sue Park, a “Critical Race Studies fellow” at UCLA law school, complained in The New York Times that defending the constitutional liberties of unpopular groups on the right ignored “speech suppression” by oppressors in society. Worse, she said that advancing the principle of free speech “perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal.” Apparently, some opinions, like some animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, are more equal than others when it comes to constitutional protection.
So far, the ACLU has not officially gone so far as to take that position, but some of its state affiliates appear ready to abandon free speech if the advocates have guns. Three California ACLU affiliates criticized the national ACLU’s defense of the right of armed protestors to gather in Charlottesville. The national organization noted that it gets involved in issues “on a case-by-case basis,” providing a possible pretext for refusing to act in the future.
The California ACLU groups announced that “the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence,” but no real conservatives believe that it does. In contrast, the so-called “anti-fascists” in the “antifa” movement have embraced violence to prevent their opponents from exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and speak.
Peacefully carrying a weapon is a constitutional right, an important provision of the Constitution that the ACLU tends to forget. The New York Times announced that “the critical question is how to protect people’s free speech in the presence of armed opponents.” But the prospect of some protestors being armed didn’t inhibit anyone from criticizing the white supremacists. Nor did it stop the left-wing demonstrators from violently confronting those marching legally.
Indeed, in Charlottesville, none of the supposedly dangerous armed protestors shot anyone. Those bent on violence almost always use more common objects as weapons. They typically don’t come to kill — for that they would risk prison — but to disrupt, harass and destroy.
Notably, Ms. Park defended the rioters at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, treating property destruction as a form of First Amendment speech. Now, Civil War monuments on both private and public property are being destroyed. Whatever one thinks of such memorials, might does not make right.
The ACLU should remain nonpartisan in its support of nonviolent protest. While some on the right as well as the left propagate violence, they aren’t likely to be people legally carrying weapons. In claiming to defend the Constitution, the ACLU should stand up for the Second Amendment along with the rest of the Bill of Rights.
The American Civil Rights Union