The Misguided Attacks on ACLU for Defending Neo-Nazis' Free Speech Rights in Charlottesville
Date Written: 2017-08-13
Publisher: The Intercept
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21318
You can fight fascism by employing and championing one of its defining traits: viewpoint-based state censorship. those who favor free speech suppression, or who oppose the ACLU’s universal defense of speech rights, will create results that are the exact opposite of those they claim to want. It’s an indescribably misguided strategy that will inevitably victimize themselves and their own views.
those who favor free speech suppression, or who oppose the ACLU’s universal defense of speech rights, will create results that are the exact opposite of those they claim to want. It’s an indescribably misguided strategy that will inevitably victimize themselves and their own views.
Let’s begin with one critical fact: the ACLU has always defended, and still does defend, the free speech rights of the most marginalized left-wing activists, from communists and atheists, to hardcore war opponents and pacifists, and has taken up numerous free speech causes supported by many on the left and loathed by the right, including defending the rights of Muslim extremists and even NAMBLA. That’s true of any consistent civil liberties advocate: we defend the rights of those with views we hate in order to strengthen our defense of the rights of those who are most marginalized and vulnerable in society.
The ACLU is primarily a legal organization. That means they defend people’s rights in court, under principles of law. One of the governing tools of courts is precedent: the application of prior rulings to current cases. If the ACLU allows the state to suppress the free speech rights of white nationalists or neo-Nazi groups — by refusing to defend such groups when the state tries to censor them or by allowing them to have inadequate representation — then the ACLU’s ability to defend the free speech rights of groups and people that you like will be severely compromised.
The ACLU is not defending white supremacist groups but instead is defending a principle — one that it must defend if it is going to be successful in defending free speech rights for people you support.
Beyond that, the contradiction embedded in this anti-free speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.
Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?
As I wrote in my comprehensive 2013 defense of free speech in The Guardian, this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly: “At any given point, any speech that subverts state authority can be deemed — legitimately so — to be hateful and even tending to incite violence."