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The ACLU’s civil war over old values: Free speech only for the woke?

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I was a liberal once upon a time and supported the American Civil Liberties Union when it defended Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. A lot of liberals understood that even vile members of our society have First Amendment rights. And that if you deprive them of their rights, then no one is safe. 

Skokie, Ill., was a big test for liberals. In the late 1970s, neo-Nazis wanted to march through the city, a place they picked precisely because many of its residents had survived Hitler’s Holocaust. Had my own grandparents not packed what little they had and got out of Eastern Europe before Hitler’s storm troopers marched in, they would have been among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. But I still believed — as did the ACLU — that Nazis in America, despicable as they were, had the same rights as every other American.

Now I learn from a recent story in the New York Times that old values at the ACLU are in the progressives’ crosshairs, that there are forces at the organization which believe that left-wing values should trump free-speech rights.

According to the Times, “An organization that has defended the First Amendment rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is split by an internal debate over whether supporting progressive causes is more important.”

The Times reports that at a recent ACLU event, “A law professor argued that the free-speech rights of the far right were not worthy of defense by the ACLU. … [And] an ACLU official said it was perfectly legitimate for his lawyers to decline to defend hate speech.”

Not that long ago, this kind of thinking would be considered alien to the essential mission of the ACLU. But now, to progressives at the 101-year-old organization, free speech apparently is worth fighting for only when the cause is sufficiently woke. 

This new attitude is causing considerable anguish among traditional free-speech liberals. Floyd Abrams, one of America’s preeminent First Amendment lawyers, told the Times: “The last thing they should be thinking about in a case is which ideological side profits. The ACLU that used to exist would have said exactly the opposite.”

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when the ACLU took a hard-left turn but 2016 is a good place to start. When Donald Trump was elected, liberal lawyers at the ACLU filed some 400 lawsuits against his administration. “Its annual reports from 2017 to 2019 highlight its role as a leader in the resistance against President Donald J. Trump,” the Times reports. “But the words ‘First Amendment’ or ‘free speech’ cannot be found. Nor do those reports mention colleges and universities, where the most volatile speech battles often play out.”

As troubling as what’s going on inside the ACLU is, this is simply a reflection of what’s going on in broader America, where woke thinking is influencing policy at all sorts of institutions, not only on college campuses. In the world of journalism, for example, there’s a generational debate over whether certain ideas are even legitimate, whether conservative ideas are worth publishing. Objectivity, the argument among many young journalists goes, is an idea whose time has come — and gone.

Even corporate America, once considered a bastion of conservative values, has taken a hard-left turn. Now CEOs of giant corporations think it’s their duty to make pronouncements about local political issues — and if you don’t like it, they don’t care.

“First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” Dennis Parker, who directed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program until he left in late 2018, told the Times.

To which David Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU, responded: “Everything that Black Lives Matter does is possible because of the First Amendment.”

While the two sides go back and forth, it’s beyond dispute that the ACLU — which always had liberal sensibilities — is no longer the nonpartisan organization it once was. In 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, the ACLU spent a million dollars on an ad campaign “that strongly suggested the judge was guilty of sexual assault,” according to the Times.

That same year the ACLU spent nearly $1 million on what, to many, looked like a campaign ad for Stacey Abrams, who was running for governor of Georgia. 

And earlier this year, when a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, fatally shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant as she tried to plunge a knife into a young woman, the ACLU of Ohio tweeted this: “@ColumbusPolice murdered a 15 year old Black girl.”

Despite statements like that, the hard left hasn’t taken over — yet. In recent years, the organization supported the National Rifle Association, defended the right to put the Confederate flag on special license plates, and criticized Facebook and Twitter for banning President Trump.

Since it opened its doors on Jan. 19, 1920, the ACLU has been “America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties,” as the Times puts it. But now it’s in danger of becoming just one more political organization preaching left-wing ideology and defending progressive causes. At stake is nothing less than the ACLU’s founding principle: unvarnished support for the First Amendment.

Ira Glasser, a former director of the ACLU, is one of those old-school liberals who worries about the future of the organization. “There are a lot of organizations fighting eloquently for racial justice and immigrant rights,” he said. “But there’s only one ACLU that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.

Tags American Civil Liberties Union Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump far left progressives woke

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