"No Free Speech for Fascists!" It's a motto you see on pre-printed signs at protests, including at yesterday's rallies in reaction to the violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. Paired with a flood of invective against the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for the group's support of Unite the Right's right to stage a rally at the city's statue of Robert E. Lee in the first place, they make for a troubling trend.
Support for the ACLU has been on the uptick from the left of late, thanks to Executive Director Anthony Romero's decisive legal maneuvering and online sass in response to President Donald Trump's misguided attempts to restrict immigration from several Muslim-dominated countries. But perhaps these new supporters didn't fully understood what they were buying into? Sure, they might have heard about the group's commitment to stick up for intersectional Muslim activists. But were they fully aware of the ACLU's long history of litigating in favor of KKK marches and other exercises in speech and assembly by unpopular minorities? (Or that time they defended NAMBLA, even!) Along came the defense of Milo Yiannopoulos (along with several others, including PETA and a women's health clinic) in a suit against Washington's transit system, and some of the Trump-era donors started getting nervous. Then, Charlottesville happened.
When people live in low-trust societies—that is, when citizens broadly believe that corruption is rampant and the powerful cannot be relied upon to follow the rules—they paradoxically tend to call for more regulation and other types of government action. That impulse was on full display in the anti-speech reaction to the cold-blooded murder of Heather Heyer. Many observers looked at what happened in Charlottesville and decided that not only were the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and alt-righters who gathered in Virginia culpable for egging on those who physically lashed out, the legal and political institutions that defended their speech rights were as well. These are not just angry or grieving laymen; Waldo Jaquith, a member of the board of the ACLU of Virginia, resigned after the protest turned violent, characterizing the group's support for the right to gather as "a fig leaf for the Nazis."
But if fascists are to lose their free speech rights, someone must take them. And if you believe, as many of the counter-protesters do, that the white nationalists and their brethren were emboldened by the presence of a man in the White House who sees them as part of his coalition, then why on God's good green earth would you want to turn around and hand that very man the right to censor anyone whom he labels fascists? Because I can tell you right now, the list of folks that Trump and the restive-but-still-Republican Congress would like to silence sure won't look like the list those sign-wavers have in mind.
The people wielding "No Free Speech for Fascists" placards might as well be holding up signs saying "No Free Speech for Muslims." And in fact, many on the right have been making just that argument against the ACLU for years now, arguing that exceptions to our free speech principles should be made to curtail extreme speech by Muslim religious figures or activists in the name of security, or even (in the stupidest variant of the idea) that the ACLU is part of a radical Islamic conspiracy. But if the justification for restrictions on the speech of one man is violence committed by another, there can be no end to list of people who may be silenced in the name of order.
I have my beefs with ACLU too. I wish they'd see the importance of defending free speech even in situations where money is changing hands—to my way of thinking, the group has lately been on the wrong side of a few debates over freedom of conscience and association in the commercial realm. But the ACLU's work on speech in the public sphere is unbeatable. They did the right thing to let Unite the Right gather in Charlottesville. Sticking up for free speech for fascists doesn't mean you love fascists, it means you love free speech.
For more, check out Glenn Greenwald's humongous defense of the ACLU's habit of defending unpopular speech at The Intercept.