The American Civil Liberties Union will weigh its interest in protecting the First Amendment against its other commitments to social justice, racial equality, and women's rights, given the possibility that offensive speech might undermine ACLU goals.
"Our defense of speech may have a greater or lesser harmful impact on the equality and justice work to which we are also committed," wrote ACLU staffers in a confidential memo obtained by former board member Wendy Kaminer.
It's hard to see this as anything other than a cowardly retreat from a full-throated defense of the First Amendment. Moving forward, when deciding whether to take a free speech case, the organization will consider "factors such as the (present and historical) context of the proposed speech; the potential effect on marginalized communities; the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values; and the structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur."
The memo also makes clear that the ACLU has zero interest in defending First Amendment rights in conjunction with Second Amendment rights. If controversial speakers intend to carry weapons, the ACLU "will generally not represent them."
The memo's authors assert that this does not amount to a formal change in policy, and is merely intended as guidelines that will assist ACLU affiliates in deciding which cases to take.
Kaminer, though, sees the memo as yet more evidence that the ACLU "has already lost its zeal for vigorously defending the speech it hates." As she writes in The Wall Street Journal:
The speech-case guidelines reflect a demotion of free speech in the ACLU's hierarchy of values. Their vague references to the "serious harm" to "marginalized" people occasioned by speech can easily include the presumed psychological effects of racist or otherwise hateful speech, which is constitutionally protected but contrary to ACLU values. Faced with perceived conflicts between freedom of speech and "progress toward equality," the ACLU is likely to choose equality. If the Supreme Court adopted the ACLU's balancing test, it would greatly expand government power to restrict speech.
In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), for example, the ACLU defended the First Amendment rights of a Ku Klux Klan leader prosecuted for addressing a small rally and calling for "revengence" against blacks and Jews. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Clarence Brandenburg's conviction, narrowly defining incitement to violence as speech both intended and likely to cause imminent illegal action. Brandenburg made an essential distinction between advocacy and action, which progressives who equate hate speech with actual discrimination or violence seek to erase.
The ACLU would be hard pressed to take Brandenburg's case today, given its new guidelines. The organization hasn't yet endorsed a ban on hate speech, or a broader definition of incitement. The guidelines affirm that "speakers have a right to advocate violence." But even if Brandenburg managed to pass the new balancing test for speech cases, some participants at his rally were armed, and, according to the guidelines, "the ACLU generally will not represent protesters who seek to march while armed."
Kaminer notes that the ACLU is of course free to change its position on free speech—but it should own up to this evolution:
All this is the ACLU's prerogative. Organizations are entitled to revise their values and missions. But they ought to do so openly. The ACLU leadership had apparently hoped to keep its new guidelines secret, even from ACLU members. They're contained in an internal document deceptively marked, in all caps, "confidential attorney client work product." I'm told it was distributed to select ACLU officials and board members, who were instructed not to share it. According to my source, the leadership is now investigating the "leak" of its new case-selection guidelines. President Trump might sympathize.
It seems fairly clear to me what's happening here. Leadership would probably like the ACLU to remain a pro-First Amendment organization, but they would also like to remain in good standing with their progressive allies. Unfortunately, young progressives are increasingly hostile to free speech, which they view as synonymous with racist hate speech. Speech that impugns marginalized persons is not speech at all, in their view, but violence. This is why a student Black Lives Matter group shut down an ACLU event at the College of William & Mary last year, chanting "liberalism is white supremacy" and "the revolution will not uphold the Constitution." Campus activism is illiberal, and liberal free speech norms conflict with the broad protection of emotional comfort that the young, modern left demands.
The ACLU's capitulation to the anti-speech left should serve as a wake up call for true liberals. What has taken place on campus over the last decade does matter, and though the scope of the problem is frequently overstated, we should all be concerned when the nation's premiere civil liberties organization is increasingly afraid of defending the First Amendment—not because the Trump administration scares them, but because college students do.
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