Actress: ACLU "the NRA of free speech"

It wishes. The ACLU came under attack over the last twenty-four hours from two sources that normally offers unqualified support for their cause. From Hollywood, actress and activist Aunjanue Ellis (Men of Honor, Ray) declared that the ACLU had become “the NRA of free speech” for its support of First Amendment rights even for extremists. Its defense of such for neo-Nazis, Ellis writes at HuffPost, has caused her to rethink her support for the civil-rights organization:


Like the NRA with the Second Amendment, the ACLU exploits the anachronistic nature of the First Amendment, it cedes to its of lack of foresight, and it demurs to the primacy of white men in the constitution’s considerations: The framers did not foresee a world in which white men alone would have power or opportunity for speech. Like the NRA, it parrots sympathy for the victims of so called “hate speech” but this is all performative double speak: a ventriloquist chiding his dummy. It condemns violence and then lawsuit by lawsuit ensures that the perpetrators have open door access to carry out that violence. It sues cities who try to keep the Klan off its streets throwing “peaceable assembly” in their faces. Let this be the last day that we put “peaceable” and “KKK” in the same sentence. There is no such thing. It is a stars and bars unicorn. …

I donate to the ACLU because I believe its work to protect immigrants is vital. I don’t know if i will continue. Why would I give an organization money which facilitates terror? No amount of constitutional rectitude can make this right. The organization must acknowledge that we are living in 21st century America, one that looks more and more like speculative fiction with cataclysmic urgencies borne of a nation that has yet to square its reality with its constitutional myths.

Lee Rowland, free speech attorney for the ACLU has said “It is important to defend speech we hate because that means the First Amendment rises to the tide of us all.” Ms. Rowland, will the ACLU continue to hide behind milquetoast notions of “offense from hate speech” and persist in what seems to be an organizational project of defending speech that intimidates, that terrorizes?


Where does one start in parsing this nonsense? Let’s start with more recent history. If Ellis is suddenly disillusioned with the ACLU because of its support for neo-Nazis, it only reflects her own ignorance and youth. Ellis would have been nine years old when the ACLU went to court to allow neo-Nazis to organize a march through a mainly Jewish community in Skokie, Illinois, where survivors of the Holocaust lived. Granted, the ACLU lost members at the time over their defense of the white supremacists’ rights to peaceful assembly, but their position today is entirely consistent with their history. The HuffPost headline, After The ACLU Defends Nazis, I’m Rethinking My Support, neglects to mention that it’s been 39 years after that.

This wasn’t some esoteric court filing, either. It drew so much attention that the ACLU’s actions inspired a 1981 TV movie (“Skokie”) starring Danny Kaye, Carl Reiner, and Lee Strasberg, as well as books and continuing defenses of their work from the ACLU itself. As Casey Stengel once mansplained, “You can look it up” — and Ellis probably should have done that before sending money to the ACLU.

Next up is this bizarre statement:

The framers did not foresee a world in which white men alone would have power or opportunity for speech.

It’s unclear even in context whether this is what Ellis thinks, or what Ellis thinks the ACLU thinks. Either way, it’s nonsense; that was the world in which the framers of the Constitution lived, but that’s hardly the case now. Why? One key reason why it applies to more than just white men today is because the government could not stamp out dissenting views like abolitionism, and later the Civil Rights Movement. Free speech was a critical component of forcing America to grasp the indignity and injustice of Jim Crow and state-imposed and/or state-pressured segregation.


The people who fought and won those battles faced a whole lot more than just “speech that intimidates, that terrorizes.” Perhaps Ms. Ellis needs to reflect on just how powerful a tool free speech is, and why turning it over to the government to regulate is such a bad idea. Put simply: would she want Donald Trump in charge of deciding which speech is acceptable and which isn’t? If not, then she should rethink this critique of the ACLU.

The ACLU comes under attack in the op-ed pages of the New York Times as well. An attorney and former volunteer, K-Sue Park, argues that its absolutist defense of free speech is passé. What we need now is race-based free speech:

The question the organization should ask itself is: Could prioritizing First Amendment rights make the distribution of power in this country even more unequal and further silence the communities most burdened by histories of censorship?

This is a vital question because a well-funded machinery ready to harass journalists and academics has arisen in the space beyond First Amendment litigation. If you challenge hateful speech, gird yourself for death threats and for your family to be harassed.

This is an apples-to-oranges argument. Death threats are criminal acts, and harassment is actionable on at least a civil basis. Nor does this phenomenon exist in a single context either, as practically anyone who spends time in the political arena will testify.  There is no prior restraint on challenging hateful speech; in fact, there seems to be plenty of people doing just that now. We can thank the First Amendment for that free market of ideas.


That’s part of the problem for Park. She’s unhappy because some of the speech that she prefers doesn’t do terribly well in those markets, including a claim that college campuses are a hostile environment for leftist professors. (Ahem.) For this, Park blames … “right-wing free-speech hypocrisy”:

The danger that communities face because of their speech isn’t equal. The A.C.L.U.’s decision to offer legal support to a right-wing cause, then a left-wing cause, won’t make it so. Rather, it perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal. And it fuels right-wing free-speech hypocrisy. Perhaps most painful, it also redistributes some of the substantial funds the organization has received to fight white supremacy toward defending that cause.

This is nonsensical, especially from an attorney. The ACLU represents clients in court to protect the First Amendment. Do criminal attorneys who represent clients in trials “redistribute” their resources toward murder, rape, and child molestation by doing so? Is that what Park learned in law school? Or while volunteering at the ACLU?

I’m not a big overall fan of the ACLU, which usually leans pretty far to the left for their activist choices — which makes these attacks all the more ironic. I am a big fan of free speech, however, and on those issues they’ve largely been solid. They deserve better than this, perhaps even more so from their putative allies. Maybe they need to choose their friends more wisely.


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