Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind. An organization I once revered is no longer recognizable. It’s an analogy for the growing split between my generation of liberals and the new hard-left.
The American Civil Liberties Union was the first nonprofit I joined. I was 17 or 18-years old and the editorial director for my high school newspaper, the Thomas More Utopian. At the time, it was the late 1970’s, the ACLU had been defending the right of Nazi’s to march in Skokie, Illinois, a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb with many Holocaust survivors. The lead lawyer for the ACLU was David Goldberg, himself Jewish.
I hated Nazi’s as much as anybody, but I loved the First Amendment more. The underlying point was as clear to me then as it is now: By defending the free speech rights of the most detestable people in our country, the speech of everyone else would be secure.
That point of view was dominant, though certainly not universal, among liberals of that era. Not so today. As reported in an excellent June 6th piece in the New York Times, the ACLU’s internal conflicts mirror those of what’s going on in all left-of-center politics in this country. It’s a split between those of us (mostly Boomers or older) who are supportive of social justice causes, but who believe that, in the long run, equality is best served by classical liberal values, and those of us (mostly Millenials and younger) who see these values as tools of the “privileged” and the “oppressors.”
Speaking of the current climate at the organization, Goldberg told the Times, “I got the sense it was more important for A.C.L.U. staff to identify with clients and progressive causes than to stand on principle. Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”
“There are a lot of organizations fighting eloquently for racial justice and immigrant rights,” said Ira Glasser, a former ACLU director. “But there’s only one A.C.L.U. that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”
The intolerance of the young hard-left even extends to their own generation. According to the Times story, “In interviews, several younger lawyers suggested a toll taken. Their generational cohort, they said, placed less value on free speech, making it uncomfortable for them to express views internally that diverged from progressive orthodoxy. “A dogmatism descends sometimes” inside the A.C.L.U., noted Alejandro Agustin Ortiz, a lawyer with the racial justice project. “You hesitate before you question a belief that is ascendant among your peer group.”
For example: “First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” said Dennis Parker, who directed the organization’s Racial Justice Program until he left in late 2018.
To which David Cole, the national legal director of the A.C.L.U., rejoined: “Everything that Black Lives Matter does is possible because of the First Amendment. We protect the First Amendment not only because it is the lifeblood of democracy and an indispensable element of freedom, but because it is the guarantor of civil society itself.”
Cole is still at the ACLU, while Parker has moved on, so maybe that’s a sign that the organization will return to its roots at some point.
For the young and the woke it’s easy to cast free speech as just another tool of the privileged oppressors when they can’t imagine their own righteous speech ever being shouted down. But I hope there is an organization like the old ACLU to come to their defense when it’s their ideas that the censors come for.