Outcry in Spite of Consistency
In wake of the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Anthony D. Romero, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), published an op-ed titled “Equality, Justice and the First Amendment”. He concluded the piece with the following:
“For our organization, we must remain focused and vigorous in our defense of civil liberties and civil rights in every community and in every context. Our 97-year history of defending the constitutional rights of all persons — even those we disagree with — is imbued with a belief that these rights are indeed indivisible, unalienable, and granted to each of us in our democracy. Our job is to turn those promises and aspirations into a reality for all people. And that work has never been more important than now.”
The ACLU is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that pledges "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." Since 1920, the ACLU has stood to defend individuals of varied backgrounds and groups with diverse interests, helping spur major US civil rights advancements. For example, the ACLU has worked to combat racism, prevent the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, protect the rights of anti-war activists during the Vietnam War, challenge anti-terrorism measures post 9/11, and advocate for LGBT rights. Since the 2016 US Presidential Election, the nonpartisan organization’s perception as politically progressive has been amplified with every institutional pushback and legal challenge it launches against the Trump administration, including a scathing op-ed by Romero that addresses the constitutionality of the President’s controversial statements and policy proposals made on the campaign trail.
At the time of its founding, the ACLU focused on upholding one of America’s most treasured civil liberties: freedom of speech. The organization’s reasoning for doing so is “driven by the need to protect the constitutional rights of conscientious objectors and anti-war protesters.” Though the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees five basic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the text and prior understanding of the civil liberties as granted by the constitutional framers are a topic of debate. Recent political movements, such as those led by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, reflect the extremes of the political spectrum and augment the national conversation regarding the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution beyond its conventional parameters. The ACLU’s solid historical grounding in defending groups with radical beliefs, such as Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, positions the organization as a foremost proponent of First Amendment rights. However, its position has not evaded sharp criticism from both sides of the American political aisle. Specifically, while embracing the ACLU’s mission of safeguarding American freedoms and defending the livelihoods of individual citizens, many reject the organization’s legal defense of an organizer of the Unite the Right rally because of the rally’s association with white supremacy and neo-Nazism. As a result, an organization that had begun to be viewed as a progressive hotbed during the Trump era has undergone an abandonment by left-leaning Americans for its far-reaching efforts to preserve fundamental American individual rights.
According to its section on free speech, the ACLU believes all freedoms defined under the First Amendment comprise freedom of expression. The organization’s platform swears to protect free speech for everyone, communicating that it frequently defends those who preach offensive speech, including “communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners.” The organization then explains its decision to stand by the speech rights of these controversial figures, contending that “...defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive,” and that “Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.”
The election of Donald Trump, however, painted a different picture and altered the institutional structure of the ACLU. In his critical op-ed of the 45th President titled “The ACLU Is Non-Partisan, but We Have to Take Action When So Much Is at Stake”, Romero preemptively asserted that the ACLU would take on Trump, stating on behalf of his organization, “If Donald Trump or anyone else seeks to undermine freedom of the press, shows utter disregard for the separation of powers, or makes a mockery of judicial independence, they better be prepared to take on the ACLU.”
By November 2017, the organization had taken over one-hundred legal actions against the Trump administration, most notably against the administration’s controversial travel ban, its voter fraud commission, and its proposal to rescind DACA. Simultaneously, the ACLU witnessed its membership skyrocket and its fundraising reach record hauls. Liberal Americans and never-Trumpers flocked to the ACLU because of its aggression towards fighting the deeply unpopular President Trump.
Then the Unite the Right rally took place in downtown Charlottesville from Friday, August 11 to Saturday, August 12, 2017. Violence between far-right activists and counter-protesters left three people dead and over thirty people injured, and prompted Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency. On NPR’s Morning Edition the following Monday, Governor McAuliffe blamed the ACLU for causing the events due to its successful legal challenge on behalf of the rally’s far-right organizers.
The ACLU responded to the governor’s accusation by calling out Charlottesville’s law enforcement for failing to prevent the violent outbreak at the rally. This claim was later justified by the December 2017 Heaphy Report, but the ensuing negative press aimed at the organization only increased after the governor’s comments aired. A few days later, the New York Times reported on the backlash the organization received on social media, specifically hateful comments, death threats, and the public resignation of an ACLU Virginia board member due to his not wanting to be “a fig leaf for Nazis.” Later, the New York Times published another op-ed by a former ACLU volunteer who called for the ACLU to reassess its stance on free speech, adding, “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.” The adverse reaction to Charlottesville ultimately galvanized some ACLU local chapters to declare that “white supremacist violence [like the violence featured in Charlottesville] is not free speech.”
The ACLU remains consistent in the clients it represents, but the fatal violence that occurred in Charlottesville sparked a different debate for the embattled organization. The organization’s 1978 defense of a planned, non-violent rally by a small group of Neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois “cemented its [the ACLU’s] reputation for fighting for civil liberties, even, or especially, if it meant, in the words of its director at the time, ‘defending my enemy,’”. Now, the conundrum is “how to pursue its First Amendment advocacy, even for hate-based groups, without alienating [the ACLU’s] supporters.” The Skokie, Illinois neo-Nazi defense cost the ACLU thousands of members, particularly liberal American Jews who asked, ‘How could you defend the group responsible for the Holocaust?’ Like Skokie, the defense of the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and KKK members who incited the deadly violence in Charlottesville confused many who recently enlisted the ACLU as their weapon in the fight against the Trump administration. Though the organization appeared to be rebranding as a stronghold for the anti-Trump resistance, its historically nonpartisan advocacy contradicts the modern progressive grassroots movements that the ACLU’s new batch of followers attributed it to be. The ACLU’s role in defending the Unite the Right participants did not give the impression of supporting the resistance; it gave the impression of aiding in the resistance’s destruction.
Despite considerable internal pressure and opposing wishes from much of its current anti-Trump base, the ACLU shows no inclination of sacrificing civil liberties for civil rights, a point proven by the organization doubling down on its defense of the Unite the Right rally’s organizer. This cements the ACLU’s grounding in upholding freedoms granted to all Americans, regardless of the blatant discriminatory and hateful ideologies of those who the organization represents. Though the ACLU takes an enormous amount of flak for its actions, it does so with the theory that any deviation from pre-existing trends would have negative consequences for the future of American civil liberties. The ACLU will continue to be one of President Trump’s biggest thorns, but in the midst of an organizational reassessment of its freedom of expression advocacy, the organization will also remain, in the words of its Executive Director Romero, “focused and vigorous in its defense of civil liberties and civil rights in every community and in every context.”
The ACLU’s strong rhetoric and legal actions targeting Trump elevated the organization’s reputation by giving a strong first impression to a new, young, politically-motivated progressive audience. This audience, however, has begun to blur the lines between civil liberties and civil rights, and the ACLU now finds itself caught squarely in the ongoing debate of whether to buck tradition in favor of what the current moment demands. As new legal challenges with fringe groups arise, the ACLU’s direction will be integral in shaping the US socio-political landscape.
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"The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 1.
Glenn Thrush, “New Outcry as Trump Rebukes Charlottesville Racists 2 Days Later.” The New York Times, The New York Times, August 14, 2017.
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