ACLU of California Condemns White Supremacy and ACLU National’s Attempts to Defend It
The ACLU’s California chapters have officially broken ranks from the rest of the ACLU National organization, announcing in a statement that they condemn groups who hide behind the First Amendment as an excuse to incite or engage in violence. They write:
“Our country’s greatest strengths are the diversity of its people and the principles of equal dignity and inclusion that unite us all. There are troubling events planned in our state in the coming weeks. This is an incredibly painful and difficult time for millions of Californians. For those who are wondering where we stand – the ACLU of California fully supports the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to peacefully assemble. We review each request for help on a case-by-case basis, but take the clear position that the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence. If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
This move is especially notable as the ACLU’s recent actions have garnered much notoriety for the longstanding organization.
Most recently, the ACLU represented Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where tensions exploded as white supremacist Nazi demonstrators lashed out at counter-protesters. One such incident resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester who died after James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist and supporter of the “alt-right” (i.e., Nazi) movement drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in a narrow city street. Critics have levied some of the blame upon the ACLU for defending Kessler, saying that if Kessler’s permit to demonstrate was revoked (i.e., if the ACLU chose not to defend him), the violence never would have happened and Heyer might still be alive.
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero has come out against such accusations, writing in a statement, “The violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment.”
Before that, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in defense of Milo Yiannopoulos, whose actions have incited harassment against marginalized people. Earlier this year, Yiannopoulos’ recent scheduled appearances at college campuses was met with fierce resistance from numerous student organizations, which many of his supporters labelled censorship and a restriction on free speech—you know, never mind the fact that Yiannopoulos doxed and outed a trans woman at his University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee talk.
ACLU National doesn’t necessarily support or condone Yiannopoulos’ actions, but somehow they fail to see how their defense of such speech leads to such harassment and violence. In a stunning post on their blog, the ACLU equated defending Yiannopoulos’ actions with other cases in which LGBTQIA people have been discriminated against with regards to their presentation or speech, referring to a 2010 case in which a teenager wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom in a tuxedo. The difference between these cases is that one results in a teenager getting to go to prom while the other resulted in a trans woman being forced to withdraw from school or risk harassment from being doxed. That is the kind of “free speech” that ACLU National seeks to protect.
And let’s not fool ourselves here: the ACLU has a long history of defending Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacist provocateurs.
Seeing at least a few chapters of the ACLU break ranks from the rest of the organization and condemn hate speech is heartening, for sure. Moreover, this spotty history doesn’t necessarily undo or eliminate the work they’ve done to actually protect civil rights. But equating hate speech with free speech is a mistake—I’m glad that the ACLU of California recognizes that, at least.
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