On October 4, The New York Times ran a story about changes afoot in the American Civil Liberties Union. In the wake of Charlottesville, it said, the famed civil liberties group has backed off of what was once a secure reputation as the purists of the first amendment and of the right to demonstrate in particular.
The justification for this backing-off: guns. Groups who plan to bring their guns with them to a protest may, it seems, hereafter lose a reasonable expectation that the A.C.L.U. will support them in the right to demonstrate.
The Times’ story also said, ”nine longtime A.C.L.U. members” recently wrote to the organization complaining that this shift in policy weakens the organization’s characteristic strength. They said the new focus on guns serves simply as an “invitation to shirk responsibility for protecting the Bill of Rights.” One of those nine, Norman Siegal (who used to head the A.C.L.U.’s New York affiliate) said that refusing to take on armed groups as free speech clients would have meant turning down the Black Panthers.
The reputation of the A.C.L.U as the first amendment’s purists was cemented, at the latest, in 1977, when the National Socialists of America made known their desire to march through the Village of Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish town where roughly 16% of the resides were Holocaust survivors.
The ACLU was then willing to anger much of what one might call its own demographic base in order to stand for principle. It sided with the rights of the Nazis to express themselves, bearing swastikas in the process. The ACLU took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and prevailed.
Right Wing View
This summer, the ACLU played a familiar role suing on behalf of a man who wanted to organize a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. This time, though, the backlash was so intense, especially after the death of a young woman and the injury of dozens, that it may have forced a redefinition of the organization.
The right has always considered the A.C.L.U, to be, at best, suspect in its loyalty to the United States and perverse in its philosophical premises. Helen Chaffee Biehle, writing for the website of The Eagle Forum, said twenty years ago that it was founded on and remains tainted by “nihilism/individualism.” Those two words are separated or united in Biehle’s account by a slash, apparently indicating that the two concepts they name are intertwined.
In 2008, foes alleged that the A.C.L.U. “wants the United State to lose” the war on terror. That accusation was occasioned by the organization’s opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s use of the category “enemy combatants” as a way to punish prisoners without due process.
With such a gulf between the right and the core mission of the A.C.L.U., it is perhaps not surprising that many on the right respond to news of dissension within the ranks of the A.C.L.U. with a certain amount of glee.
As Steve Knipper tweets, “the chickens have come home to roost and Soros’ fox is in the henhouse!”
Left Wing View
Both halves of the split within the A.C.L.U. are playing themselves out within the U.S. left in general. There is, on the one hand, a feeling abroad that a commitment to free speech has brought ‘us’ (progressive folk) as far as it can, and needs to be abandoned or modified. There is, on the other, a belief that the defense of the Nazis at Skokie was a valiant defense of everybody’s freedom everywhere, and that the ACLU should live up to that legacy rather than trying to live it down.
We began with The New York Times, we may appropriately end with it. On October 6, Michelle Goldberg wrote in an op-ed column there. She said that she grew up admiring the A.C.L.U. for its stand at Skokie, and that she hopes young people, progressive activists especially, will come to understand that there is no progress in limiting speech, that “when disputes about free speech are adjudicated not according to broad principles but according to who has power, the left will mostly lose.”