The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Michael Powell's June 7, 2021 New York Times article—"Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis"—raised a perennial issue that has roiled not only the ACLU, but also society in general, throughout my adult lifetime: do we have to choose between freedom of speech and other aspects of the civil liberties/human rights agenda? Since the ACLU's founding, more than a century ago, it has defended all fundamental freedoms for all people, including free speech and equality, especially for people and groups that have traditionally been subject to discrimination. Some ACLU critics charge that its vigorous advocacy of equality rights is somehow antithetical to its free speech advocacy. Conversely, other ACLU critics charge that its ongoing defense of free speech rights even for those who convey anti-civil-liberties messages is somehow antithetical to its equal justice advocacy.
The ACLU's mission closely parallels government's responsibility: to uphold all rights for everyone, neither privileging particular rights over others, nor privileging the rights of particular people or groups over others. Therefore, debates about the ACLU's efforts to promote our interlocking national aspirations of "liberty and justice for all" has resonance for government policy as well. The ACLU-focused debates mirror more general debates about the appropriate prioritization of racial justice and free speech in our public sphere—for example, in public schools and universities.
Nadine Strossen is Professor of Law, Emerita at the New York Law School, and was the President of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008.