[guest post by Dana]
In an in-depth interview at Reason, Former Executive Director Ira Glasser considers today’s uninformed views on free speech:
I went to one of the half-dozen best law schools in the country a year or two ago to speak. And it was a gratifying sight to me, because the audience was a rainbow. There were as many women as men. There were people of every skin color and every ethnicity. It was the kind of thing that when I was at the ACLU 20, 30, 40 years ago was impossible. It was the kind of thing we dreamed about. It was the kind of thing we fought for. So I’m looking at this audience and I am feeling wonderful about it. And then after the panel discussion, person after person got up, including some of the younger professors, to assert that their goals of social justice for blacks, for women, for minorities of all kinds were incompatible with free speech and that free speech was an antagonist.
As I said, when I came to the ACLU, my major passion was social justice, particularly racial justice. But my experience was that free speech wasn’t an antagonist. It was an ally. It was a critical ally. I said this to the audience, and I was astonished to learn that most of them were astonished to hear it—I mean, these were very educated, bright young people, and they didn’t seem to know this history—I told them that there is no social justice movement in America that has ever not needed the First Amendment to initiate its movement for justice, to sustain its movement for justice, to help its movement survive.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew it. Margaret Sanger knew it. [The labor leader] Joe Hill knew it. I can think of no better explication of it than the late, sainted John Lewis, who said that without free speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings. And that’s historically and politically true without exception. For people who today claim to be passionate about social justice to establish free speech as an enemy is suicidal.
Among the subjects discussed in depth is whether Glasser believes that today’s ACLU would defend the Nazis’ right to march in the streets by opposing government restrictions on their speech and the continuing misperceptions of what took place and the ongoing need to protect everyone’s right to speech:
What the public sees is, “Oh, there’s the ACLU representing the Nazis.” We never see it that way. We were trying to oppose the government using the insurance bond requirement to prevent free speech. For us it didn’t matter who the client was, because we would use that client to strike down the bond requirements, and that would apply to everybody.
I used to joke that when people would say the trouble with free speech in America is that so few people support it, my response was always, “No, you’re wrong. Everybody in America supports free speech so long as it’s theirs or people they agree with.” Even in our own membership, the perception was that the ACLU was representing Nazis, not that the ACLU was opposing a government restriction on your speech.
Glasser also points out that it’s not one’s party affiliation that determines who protects and who attacks civil liberties and free speech. Rather it’s about who holds power:
Next to slavery and the homicidal, genocidal destruction of American Indians, the worst civil liberties violation that occurred in this country en masse was the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. You know which president signed that executive order? Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a god in my parents’ house because he had saved them from ruin financially. But for me, the antagonist of civil liberties and free speech is not this or that party; it’s power, whoever holds it.
Recently, I read Thomas Chatterton Williams’ (TCW) Self-Portrait in Black and White for a book club made up of similarly educated and socially justice-minded people that Glasser describes above. Briefly, TCW, who was born to a black father and a white mother and is married to a white woman, examines race and identity after his first child is born with blonde hair and blue eyes. During what proved to be the most controversial portion of the book, TCW shares how his elderly, beloved French grandmother-in-law kept “an astonishing, thick-lipped, bug-eyed porcelain head of a slave or servant woman on her coffee table (lidded and hollow inside, meant to hold bonbons, keys, and other knickknacks)”. He comments that “whenever I am in the living room where this keepsake is displayed, I am incapable of denying it my attention.” The book club was appalled that the grandmother-in-law did this. But they were even more appalled that TCW, and especially his white wife did not tell her that it was unacceptable to have such an item on display [in the privacy of her own home]. The group also believed that anyone who saw it had a moral obligation to confront her about it, enlighten her to its offensiveness, and demand that it be removed from view. Interestingly though, this was in spite of TCW describing to readers how he worked through the shock at seeing the object and eventually realized that it wasn’t representative of something he had personally experienced and thus was not obligated to react to it. He did note that, at the end of the day, “…there will be incalculable small, unfortunate situations such as the one I have recounted, instances of micro-aggression brought about in limited spaces between the racist past and a more perfect future. They can either be seized on and blown up or deemphasized whenever possible. To do the latter, it’s inevitable that someone will have to make the first move. I am more committed to getting to that more perfect future than I am to always moving second.” This did not go over well with the group.
My very unpopular take was that it was indeed, an offensive piece of pottery, yet it was a piece of pottery that a homeowner displayed within the privacy of her home. I believed that it was a form of speech. Her home, her speech. Thus, I wouldn’t have made any demands for her to remove it. However, I’m also pretty sure that I wouldn’t want much of anything to do with anyone who knowingly displayed such an object (as opposed to being ignorant about it, or displaying it as part of a historical collection).
Anyway, after a hush of disbelief, followed by an intense pushback at my take, came an incredulous demand of disbelief: “So, what, you would defend allowing the Nazis to march on the streets of America too??”