The ACLU turns its back on free speech

When politically-minded Americans think of an organization dedicated to defending freedom of speech, they’re apt to think of the American Civil Liberties Union. And to its credit, the ACLU has often made a point of backing its principles by defending speech rights regardless of who it is saying what.

But now, that fundamental stand looks headed for the dust bin. In a confidential internal staff memo obtained by a former board member, the organization vows to compromise its commitment to free speech rights by treating them merely as a means to a much different end.

“Our defense of speech may have a greater or lesser harmful impact on the equality and justice work to which we are also committed,” the memo reads. Efforts to protect free speech should now be qualified by “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.”

While the memo claims these conditions are just “guidelines,” anyone familiar with corporate compliance-speak will recognize that employees treating them as anything less than rules are probably asking for trouble. Indeed, were the new rules mere guidelines, they would fall short of the ethical argument behind them.

The ACLU is clearly bending to the ideological vogue. And, maybe that would be okay if that moral abdication did not demand any tradeoffs, but, in fact, it always does — and the internal memo reflects that, in case of conflict, the only acceptable answer is to yield to the ideologically popular viewpoint.

This isn’t just a failure of nerve. It’s a failure of principle. If free speech is treated as a fundamental human right — in accordance with the centuries-old tradition the ACLU has so long embraced — then it must be defended, warts and all.

Standards of appropriateness do not carry the same moral or legal weight as a core human right to free speech. If the ACLU found its courage, it would admit this fact, however awkward to its supporters and staff.

In today’s climate, the ACLU’s decision to appease those who would see limits placed on constitutional rights virtually guarantees that the organization will wind up complicit in fights to silence groups targeted for coercion and abuse. That’s the opposite of what a civil liberties organization should do. And because the ACLU itself is being coerced into abusing its own principles, the organization is on track to engage in the very unfree speech it once fought so hard against, insisting, contrary to all evidence, that its new rules are actually quite voluntary and consistent with its old principles.

Don’t believe it. Unless this new policy is reversed, the ACLU as we have known it no longer exists. And Americans dedicated to defending speech freedom, no matter who is saying what, will have to rally fast around a new organization willing to do so.

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