Conflicts Within the A.C.L.U. Over Free Speech and Racial Justice

“I’m asked, ‘Are we a free speech or racial justice organization?’ and I answer, ‘Yes,’” said Anthony Romero, the A.C.L.U.’s executive director.
Credit…Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency


To the Editor:

Re “A.C.L.U. Is Torn Over Free Speech Mission and New Voice” (front page, June 7):

This article is strikingly reminiscent of one in The Times from 1978, “The A.C.L.U. Against Itself.” That’s because the organization is famously contrarian. There has been almost no point in its 100-plus years when it hasn’t been roiled by arguments from within — including, always, about the limits of free speech. That’s a sign of organizational health, not weakness.

The A.C.L.U. has had a broad agenda, including racial justice, from the very beginning. Its strengths as an anti-racist organization and a free speech organization are mutually reinforcing.

Every human rights and social justice group at this moment — not to mention cultural institutions, newsrooms and corporations — faces a reckoning, often led by younger, more diverse staffs, with issues of race and gender, and should. The A.C.L.U. is far from alone in navigating this terrain.

There is no evidence that the A.C.L.U. has compromised or abandoned its commitment to free speech principles, even (especially) when their application makes some allies uncomfortable. In the last few years alone, it has stood up for the free speech of right-wing boogeymen like the N.R.A. and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and defended anti-Semitic protesters, Trump supporters, and conservative and anti-gay student groups.

I’m a proud A.C.L.U. member. If you’re not upset with something the A.C.L.U. is doing or not doing, you’re not paying attention. But it remains an indispensable American institution, as committed as ever to its core values, and I fully expect it will still be 40 years from now when The Times publishes its next piece asking if the A.C.L.U. has lost its way.

Gara LaMarche
The writer, a former staff and board member of the A.C.L.U., is the president of Democracy Alliance.


To the Editor:

I canceled my long-held and prized affiliation with the A.C.L.U. when it announced its support for the principles enshrined in Citizens United v. F.E.C. In this 2010 case the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that spending money on political campaigns constitutes free speech, and as a consequence most governmental efforts to curb or even regulate this speech violate the First Amendment.

Citizens United ranks among the worst decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, demeaning the civic rights of ordinary Americans whose voices can never compete against the megaphones of moneyed interests.

From my vantage point, then, the issue is less the tension between the A.C.L.U.’s commitment to pure speech on the one hand and social justice issues on the other; it’s the organization’s perversion of the very meaning of free speech.

Elizabeth Hull
Millburn, N.J.
The writer is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.


To the Editor:

I was the executive director of the Illinois Division of A.C.L.U. when we agreed to represent a band of neo-Nazis planning to demonstrate in Skokie. I am deeply troubled by reports that the organization is wavering from its traditional defense of free speech and assembly without regard to content.

Our decision to defend the First Amendment in that case was supremely unpopular. In Illinois, we lost nearly 30 percent of our membership; we were forced to reduce staff and salaries and we were subjected to a barrage of threats. There was, however, never a moment’s doubt about the righteousness of our cause.

That there now appear to be some within the organization who would forsake the A.C.L.U.’s most vital guiding principle in favor of a politically motivated agenda is not only a direct repudiation of the work we did in the litigation we pursued during the Skokie controversy, but also a betrayal of the organization’s long and valiant history.

Should they prevail, the resulting damage to the A.C.L.U.’s reputation and its core mission will be immense and irreversible. It will also compel those of us who believe that the First Amendment means exactly what it says to take a step no true civil libertarian should have to take: We’ll have to invent a new A.C.L.U., an invention that cannot but do serious and lasting damage to the old one.

David M. Hamlin
Palm Springs, Calif.


To the Editor:

For close to four decades, I have represented the despised, dissident and demented in state and federal criminal courts around the country. I set my own criteria for the cases I accept — everyone is entitled to a defense lawyer, but no one is entitled to me. I have chosen not to work for fascists and white supremacists. But like much of the unpleasant work that I refuse to do, it still needs to be done, and someone needs to do it.

Historically, that has been the A.C.L.U. Lawyers and staff members at the A.C.L.U. who find themselves at odds with the organization’s core mission — defense of all civil liberties for all people — should align themselves with other individuals or groups with whom they are in solidarity. There is enough injustice for all of us to fight.

Ronald L. Kuby
New York
The writer is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who worked for many years with the civil rights activist William Kunstler.

To the Editor:

As a former staff lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union who, as a civil rights lawyer since then, has concentrated on First Amendment cases, I do not take threats to free speech lightly. But restrictions on speech raise issues that are more complicated than your article implies.

Yes, hate speech is generally protected by the Constitution, but so is equality, and hate speech can often make a mockery of equal rights. What the critics call an abandonment of A.C.L.U.’s principles reflects, in fact, a growing awareness of many within the A.C.L.U. that speech and equality are sometimes in conflict, and that context matters.

The point is illustrated by the recent controversy over attempts by college students to block Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolis and Charles Murray from speaking on their campuses. While the administrators who ran the college bemoaned threats to academic freedom, and liberal critics charged the students with censorship of views they didn’t like, the students recognized what it meant to vulnerable students — whose lives on predominantly white, elite campuses were often a daily struggle — to be targeted by such unrestrained bigotry. They understood as well that even in a place devoted to the free exchange of ideas, little was lost by not hearing Ann Coulter once again say of Muslims, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

What students and, now, many within the A.C.L.U. have recognized is that, whether or not speech is protected by the First Amendment, there are some times and some places where it should not be heard.

Alan Levine
Miami Beach


To the Editor:

The conflicts within the A.C.L.U. may help us clarify what free speech requires in the 21st century. The A.C.L.U. has supported the First Amendment rights of some very bad people for years, but it is a guardian of free speech, not a law enforcement agency. It fought for the right of far-right groups to parade in downtown Charlottesville, Va., but deserves no blame for the failure of the F.B.I. and the local Virginia authorities to stop the violence.

Still, the A.C.L.U. is — and was — far from perfect. Neither your news story nor Michelle Goldberg’s column (“The A.C.L.U. Must Defend Awful Speech,” June 8) mention the organization’s most egregious failures. In the name of national security, it hesitated to defend Japanese Americans during World War II and all too often refused to take cases of Communists and other controversial figures during the McCarthy era. Did its delinquency contribute to the most serious episodes of political repression in American history? Perhaps.

Its current confusion simply illustrates how complicated protecting our freedom can be. This is all the more the case in a Twitter-sphere, where nuanced arguments cannot be made. I plan to renew my membership right now.

Ellen Schrecker
New York
The writer is a retired professor of history at Yeshiva University and has published books on McCarthyism.


To the Editor:

As the former longtime head of the A.C.L.U.’s Washington Legislative Office, who happens to be a Black woman, I am disturbed by the article on the A.C.L.U. for two major reasons.

First, it overhypes the current debate inside the A.C.L.U. and treats it as if it is emblematic of an organization in trouble. The A.C.L.U. has always undertaken work that has roiled many of its followers. As one of the organization’s leading proponents of free speech, I was an outspoken opponent, on First Amendment grounds, of many popular campaign finance laws.

Second, the article seems to suggest that if you brought back select members of the old guard, everything on the First Amendment would be OK. I consider myself part of the old guard, and I watched colleagues and leaders balance a variety of factors, other than the merits of a single case, before taking a stand. They did not take on every single meritorious First Amendment cause during their tenure. There were many Black Panthers, for example, who never felt the embrace of the A.C.L.U.

I am OK with the A.C.L.U. of old and with Anthony Romero, its executive director, grappling with competing interests before devoting substantial resources to a case.

It is not now, nor has it ever been, a perfect civil liberties organization, but it is the best one we have, and especially in these times, I support it.

Laura W. Murphy


To the Editor:

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the 101-year history of the American Civil Liberties Union that the organization is engaged in internal debate. Such debates, often involving free speech issues, have frequently been intense.

I was the national executive director of the A.C.L.U. at the time of the Skokie case in 1977-78. It involved our defense of a small group of American Nazis who sought to march in uniform in an Illinois town that was home to a large number of Holocaust survivors. I vividly recall my visits during that same period to Mississippi and Southern California to try to deal with sharp splits in the organization over our defense of free speech in cases involving the Ku Klux Klan.

Because the A.C.L.U. defends the full range of civil liberties — equality, due process, prevention of cruelty, and privacy, as well as freedom of inquiry and expression — it is inevitable that there should be conflicts over priorities and, at times, over the substance of its mission. Yet I am confident that the current leadership of the A.C.L.U. will continue to defend free speech as vigorously as when we upheld the rights of groups as despicable as the Nazis and the Klan during my tenure.

Aryeh Neier
New York