The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech

K-Sue Park, New York Times, August 17, 2017

ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union has a long history of defending the First Amendment rights of groups on both the far left and the far right.

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While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy.

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By insisting on a narrow reading of the First Amendment, the organization provides free legal support to hate-based causes. More troubling, the legal gains on which the A.C.L.U. rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all.

For marginalized communities, the power of expression is impoverished for reasons that have little to do with the First Amendment.

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Most obviously, the power of speech remains proportional to wealth in this country.

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Other forms of structural discrimination and violence also restrict the exercise of speech, such as police intimidation of African-Americans and Latinos. These communities know that most of the systematic harassment and threats that stifle their ability to speak have always occurred privately and diffusely, and in ways that will never end in a lawsuit.

A black kid who gets thrown in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana will face consequences that will directly affect his ability to have a voice in public life. How does the A.C.L.U.’s conception of free speech address that?

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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?

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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.

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Perhaps most painful, it also redistributes some of the substantial funds the organization has received to fight white supremacy toward defending that cause.

The A.C.L.U. needs a more contextual, creative advocacy when it comes to how it defends the freedom of speech. The group should imagine a holistic picture of how speech rights are under attack right now, not focus on only First Amendment case law.

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Acknowledging how criminal laws, voting laws, immigration laws, education laws and laws governing corporations can also curb expression would help it develop better policy positions.

Sometimes standing on the wrong side of history in defense of a cause you think is right is still just standing on the wrong side of history.

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