Late last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union faced a mounting crisis over its most celebrated cause, which many consider the lifeblood of democracy: freedom of speech. For nearly a century, the ACLU has been the standard-bearer of civil liberties in the US, second only to the government in shaping Americans’ basic rights. Although the organisation has been at the vanguard of many of the country’s most hard-fought legal battles – desegregation, reproductive rights, gay marriage – the argument among its staff last summer, over whether to continue representing white supremacists in free-speech cases, was more intense than anything the organisation had seen before.
After Donald Trump was elected, the ACLU had positioned itself as a leader of what it calls “the resistance”, suing the administration over voting restrictions, illegal detentions, and the Muslim travel ban. It recruited celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Mahershala Ali and Tina Fey to raise money and reassure worried Americans. “The ACLU has had your back for almost a hundred years,” one ad declared. “We got this.” In the nine months after the election, the organisation’s paying membership quadrupled to more than 1.5 million people, and it received more than $80m in donations.
Then, on 10 August, the organisation’s Virginia chapter sued to prevent the city of Charlottesville from relocating a white-nationalist rally to a safer location outside the city centre. The ACLU claimed the move would violate the organiser’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and public assembly. Two days later, when a white supremacist injured 19 people and killed the anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in a car attack during the rally, many people, including Virginia’s governor, blamed the ACLU. One response in particular became a symbol of the larger backlash: “I can’t facilitate Nazis murdering people,” an ACLU of Virginia board member declared, in a series of viral tweets announcing his resignation.
Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has helped make the US home to arguably the most freewheeling, unregulated public discourse in the world. And it has done this partly by defending, in the courts of law and public opinion, the speech rights of racists and fascists. The ACLU asserts that laws guaranteeing freedom of speech must embrace everybody (think the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis) if they’re going to protect anybody (think organised labour, anti-war protesters and Black Lives Matter). “The same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you,” its website explains. [Continue reading…]