UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT! WARNING, CONTENT AHEAD MAY BE CONTROVERSIAL OR PROVOCATIVE.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to talk about an issue that has been on my mind for a few months now, and that has been in and out of the news since August: the First Amendment to our Constitution and how we should view it in light of today’s rapidly changing political environment. One item of content on this topic that caught my attention & sparked my drive to ponder this subject more deeply came from an excellent podcast that I often listen to, ‘The Daily’ by the New York Times. In the episode released on Monday October 9th, the topic of discussion was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its internal struggle with how the organization approaches its historic defense of free speech, association, and assembly rights in the wake of the now-infamous rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia back in August.
The ACLU’s Virginia chapter played a part in that rally by defending the rights of the rally planners when the city of Charlottesville originally denied the organizers the permits they sought to rally within Emancipation Park, which includes the memorial statue to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The ACLU’s defense of the rally organizers was successful and the city’s plan to relocate the march was halted. When the rally took place on August 12th, violent clashes broke out between the white nationalist marchers & counter-protestors there to show their disdain for the participants, resulting in scores of injuries and the death of a woman when one white supremacist crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. After this deadly incident, the ACLU faced broad condemnation from many of its members and supporters, including the resignation of some board members. Since then, about 200 of the organization’s 1,300 staff signed onto a letter denouncing the ACLU’s “rigid stance” on First Amendment cases, and stated that the group’s broader missions of “advancing the racial justice guarantees in the Constitution and elsewhere” were undercut by taking on cases like the one in Charlottesville where the ACLU chooses to represent those with problematic or controversial views, such as neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups.
This letter’s talking points dovetail with an increasing sentiment with young people and on the political left that so-called ‘hate speech’ shouldn’t be protected by the Constitution, and an even more extreme view that justifies shutting down such speech with physical violence. I find all of these developments incredibly disturbing, especially in light of our current federal government, and firmly believe that protecting the free speech, association, and assembly rights of those with whom I virulently disagree is paramount to ensuring those same rights for myself, others in society, and future generations of Americans.
This essay will be broken into three parts, all linked below: the first will address historical and jurisprudential facets of American free speech and assembly doctrine, and why and how our rights are interpreted the way they currently are; the second will deal with the ACLU’s history of standing up for the rights of the most hated groups in American society and why the rights of those groups are so important to protecting all of us; and the third part will discuss why, in general, a just society should tolerate even those who are intolerant, stand up for robust speech and assembly rights, and choose to use speech to counter heinous ideas instead of reflexively silencing them out of fear. I hope this essay makes you think and question your assumptions as much as writing it did for me, and I look forward to your honest feedback and comments!