The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appears to have backed off its defense of hate groups and their rhetoric, saying it is not obliged to represent organizations whose members demonstrate while carrying firearms. The policy shift puts the national organization in line with California chapters that objected to the ACLU’s ongoing representation of white supremacist groups in the wake of the deadly Aug. 12 protest in Charlottesville, Va.
After the protest, California’s three ACLU affiliates issued a joint statement arguing the hate groups that marched in Charlottesville crossed the line between free speech and incitement when they showed up to the demonstration with firearms. But free speech advocates argue the move puts the organization at odds with the U.S. Constitution.
“There are no precedents of which I am aware for rescinding free speech protections for those carrying firearms,” Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, told me. “Certainly a person lawfully carrying a firearm cannot be required to give it up in order to exercise his free speech rights. Nor can Second Amendment rights be made conditional upon giving up the right to speak freely.”
But California ACLU leaders argued that upcoming demonstrations by some of the same racist groups in their state called for greater scrutiny of whom they choose to represent.
“The First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence,” the directors said. “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
Further criticism of the national ACLU came from Virginia ACLU board member Waldo Jaquith, who announced via Twitter his resignation from the board Aug. 12.
“What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis,” he tweeted.
The Virginia chapter defended the “Unite the Right” rally in protest of the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville even after clashes with counterprotesters erupted.
Two days after extolling the ACLU’s defense of all speech, “including speech we abhor,” national ACLU executive director Anthony Romero told The Wall Street Journal, “If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else.”
Although some demonstrators in Charlottesville carried rifles and had side arms, no shots were reported fired. One counterprotester died when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd.
George said restrictions to free speech are very limited and include obscenity, slander and libel, and conspiracy to commit crimes.
“The incitement must be to imminent violence, or the restrictions are unconstitutional,” he said. “No more speech than necessary can be prohibited to, say, prevent an imminent riot.”
— by Bonnie Pritchett | WNS