The ACLU’s role in defending freedom of speech has been hotly contested by some critics recently — but these conversations are far from new. Throughout its history, the organization has had to balance its dedication to advancing civil rights for marginalized people and protecting First Amendment rights for those with whom it disagrees. This adherence to civil liberties is not always popular, as evidenced by the 30,000 members that left following the controversial time in the 1970s when the ACLU defended the rights of neo-nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois.
On the other hand, contemporary critics accuse the organization of having abandoned its defense of free speech, opting instead to solely support liberal causes. So has the ACLU lost its way? A closer look at the history of free speech legislation — and the ACLU’s role in defending it — shatters the false dichotomy between the First Amendment and civil rights. While successfully upholding the right to speak freely sometimes means defending bigots, the biggest benefactors of free speech rights tend to be the most vulnerable populations.
In this week’s episode of At Liberty, ACLU attorney and former host Emerson Sykes is joined by former ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, who oversaw the organization during the Skokie trials. The two discuss European hate speech laws, the organization’s reputation over the years, and why the present-day is not the lowest point for free speech in the US.