Within the ACLU, a debate on whose speech should be defended

You might not think a rapist, or an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist journalist, Nazis, or a teenager who burns a cross on the lawn of an African American family on St. Paul’s East side is worth defending, but they’re the people whose court cases have provided some of the backbone that makes the U.S. Constitution something more than paper.

Anybody can support the rights of people we like. But it takes a true American patriot to recognize that the rights granted by the Constitution should be argued and defended on behalf of those we despise, too.

So take with a grain of salt the protestations against the American Civil Liberties Union for its decision to defend Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocateur with few redeeming qualities, who is a party to a complaint against the Washington public transit system’s ban on subway ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” or “intended to influence public policy.”

“He brands feminism a cancer,” the ACLU writes on its blog. “He believes that transgender individuals have psychological problems, and he has compared Black Lives Matter activists to the KKK. The ACLU condemns many of the values he espouses (and he, of course, condemns many of the values the ACLU espouses).”

But if his ad (for a book) are ordered taken down, everyone’s can be taken down, the ACLU notes.

If that sounds like a ban on speech, it’s because it is a ban on speech, the group says.

But even people within the ACLU think there’s a line that must not be crossed.

On Twitter, ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio suggests extending a right to Yiannopoulos crosses it.

All of the reasons Strangio cites are all the reasons that could have — and were — cited against a rapist; an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist journalist; a teenager who lit a cross afire on the lawn of the only African American family living on Dayton’s Bluff; and the Nazis who marched in Skokie.

The ACLU, however, had the perfect response to Strangio and the people who disagreed with him:

“Some people may say that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ offensive speech sets him apart and doesn’t deserve to be defended,” James Esseks, the director of the ACLU’s HIV and LGBT project, writes in a separate blog post. “But the sad reality is that many people think that speech about sexuality, gender identity, or abortion is over the line as well. They’ll say that abortion is murder, civil rights advocates are criminals, or LGBT advocates are trying to recruit children into deviant and perverse lifestyles. If First Amendment protections are eroded at any level, it’s not hard to imagine the government successfully pushing one or more of those arguments in court.”

  • MrE85

    Those who really understand what the ACLU stands for won’t be surprised. Those who do not may never get it.

  • RBHolb

    Good for the ACLU. As Felix Frankfurter once said, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.”

  • BReynolds33

    It’s not easy being the ACLU. Defending the Constitutionally protected rights of people has to be exhausting. Yet, they still show up. Every day. With our without the thanks they deserve.

  • Kellpa07

    Good for the ACLU. Shorter version of Strangio’s statement: “I don’t really believe in the First Amendment.”

    • BReynolds33

      I think he, like most Americans, believe in their version of protected rights. The problem being most of those versions are not what the Constitution actually says.

    • Laurie K.

      Or actually read the statement where Strangio says that he does believe in the First Amendment, but that he personally doesn’t believe in protecting principal for the sake of principal. But thanks for your biased cliff notes on the statement. That said, I agree with the ACLU’s position and defending the protected rights of all people.

      • Kellpa07

        Yes, he says that he believes in the First Amendment. Often, it is helpful to see what people do as opposed to what they say.

        • Laurie K.

          You can believe in the First Amendment and still have a personal problem with some of the messages that it protects. I am not necessarily defending Strangio. I actually think that if he feels that it goes against his principals to protect all manners of free speech that the ACLU may not be the job for him and he should consider private practice where he can defend only the free speech violations that he feels passionate about. However, I do have an issue with your characterization of what Strangio’s statement said.

          • Kellpa07

            “You can believe in the First Amendment and still have a personal problem with some of the messages that it protects.”
            Of course! That’s what the ACLU does, and the test of one’s belief in the First Amendment lies in whether one is willing to fight for rights of those who have different, even abhorrent beliefs. So I agree that Mr. Strangio ought to consider another organization.

  • Ralphy

    It’s not my 1st Amendment the ACLU fights for. It’s not yours. It’s OUR 1st Amendment.
    The 1st Amendment. How I cherish it.
    Thank You ACLU!

  • Guest

    If you start by looking at the content of the speech, you have already left your principles.

    Free Speech = vile views GET to be questioned and discussed and debated and NOT squelched.

    Vile views don’t have to win the debate, they just get to be heard.

    • // d debated and NOT squelched

      You left out three very important words…. “… by the government.”

      • Kellpa07

        No. “by the government” is the limitation imposed by the First Amendment. Free speech can and should be larger than that. Squelching speech chills. That’s why so many of us dislike what’s happened with Kaepernick. Has nothing to do with the First Amendment, lots to do with free speech.

        • Sorry, there’s no right to free speech outside of the First Amendment no matter how badly you want there to be.

          • Guest

            Actually true. Companies can say “no controversial ads….by MY definition” all they want. However they will face being called out by advocates of Free Speech……and they can ignore those advocates without legal consequences.

          • Yep, freedom is a beautiful thing.

          • Kellpa07

            Well, you’re wrong in the technical sense, because state constitutions offer protection for free speech, as do many statutes, both State and Federal. In addition, I did not say “a right to free speech,” I said “free speech.” A right to free speech implies one enforced by government. I’m saying it is better when people and individuals refrain from squelching speech with which they disagree.

          • X.A. Smith

            Oh, so it merely requires that everybody agree to absolve everyone of any responsibility for saying anything in any context?

          • Kellpa07

            Of course not.

          • You’re describing an obligation or duty to listen more than a freedom to speak. That’s the very antithesis of freedom.

          • Kellpa07

            You inferred something I didn’t imply, or at least mean to imply. I’m not sure how “refrain from squelching” would mean “you must listen. ” In one draft, I wrote that speech can be ignored as well as countered, but lost that part. Of course there is no obligation to listen to anyone.

        • X.A. Smith

          How would that work? Would the government step in and force an NFL franchise, a private business, to hire a player they don’t want to hire? How would the government pick which team to put him on? What if there were a player who tweeted all the time that the league is a giant organized death machine? Would the government step in and make sure he kept his starting position?

          • That would seem to provide a freedom from consequences of speech where the government has no interest. That should be doable, right?

          • Kellpa07

            Nope. I describe how I think people should act, which is somethingI would encourage, but not enforce.

        • Rob

          Bzzzt. Free Speech rights are First Amendment guarantees against the government messing with what you say. EOS

  • Guest

    Free Speech…….OR just check with me and I will let you know if I approve of what you have to say.

  • Mike

    I’ve been a member now for over a decade, and it’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent. I don’t know why ordinary people believe that officials and authorities are their friends, but every ACLU case is a reminder of the falsity of that belief.

    • Rob

      Fellow member in total agreement. It’s always easy to support free speech when it’s kind and gentle; a little tougher when the speech is loathsome and spewed by cretins.

      • Mike

        Personally, I’d take any amount of cretinous speech over a single powerful official anywhere who’s determined to make everyone conform to his/her definition of morality or propriety. I’m far more afraid of the vested agents of repression (however polite they may be on the surface) than I am of the louts.

        • Rob

          Sometimes one and the same

  • Jaime Riotmuffin

    I call BS.

    Chase Strangio: “Maybe let’s not support people whose rhetoric can be directly traced to extreme violence against marginalized communities”
    ACLU: “See, isn’t it great that our employee got to say that?”

    It must be so nice to be comfortable enough in life to be able to argue about so-called freedom of speech (a fascist defense of fascist believes since before we ever called it “fascism,” by the way) when you don’t have to worry about whether that speech will lead to someone physically attacking you because you’re wearing a hijab, or making your life miserable because someone outs you as trans, or turning you into immigration authorities because you’re a kid whose parents came to the US without papers (these are all things Yiannopolous and other fascists have done).

    I’m over here wondering if the friend I haven’t heard from in quite a while has committed suicide because they’re sick of living in a world where so much hatred of them — oh, I’m sorry, I mean “free speech” — gets spewn over the airwaves and the internet and out of people’s mouths on the street on a daily basis. So maybe remember next time that “freedom of speech” actually impacts people’s lives. Whether or not its popular doesn’t matter. But whether or not it leads to EXTREME VIOLENCE like the cases above does.

    Enjoy your comfortable days.

    • // . So maybe remember next time that “freedom of speech” actually impacts people’s lives

      And those impacts are quite often illegal.

    • Guest

      We have all heard “Free Speech does not mean you get to yell FIRE in a crowded theater” and I dare say nobody gets to advocate violence towards a person. BUT saying “no more illegals” DOES impact people’s lives…..and still IS protected speech.

      I’m just saying the threshold for “leads to violence” is not the legal test…..however it is a great test for who is a jerk.

      • // I’m just saying the threshold for “leads to violence” is not the legal test.

        Brandenburg v. Ohio set a test of intent, imminence, and likelihood w.r.t. violence the result of speech

    • Mike

      The absence of free speech doesn’t in any way correlate to less violence, social repression, or a more humane society. Equating speech with violence and using that as a pretext to take away a person’s civil liberties is the hallmark of a totalitarian society. It’s been tried many times before, and virtually always ends in Stalinism or something very similar.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    The interesting thing about “defending the indefensible” in this country is that its older than the country itself. I have mentioned the name John Adams in comments on this blog before. The fact that the U.S. “is a nation laws, not men” is in many ways the result of what a courageous Adams did in 1770. While his actual motives are a bit fuzzy, Adams agreed to defend the British captain and his soldiers who were charged with murder. Having Adams lead the defense was considered important as he was one of the most respected legal minds in Massachusetts at that time. Also being someone recognized as leaning toward independence made it look less like a show trial. Details on the trials can be found here: