For all people of good will regardless of party affiliation, race, creed, or color the events that took place thisweekend in Charlottesville were sickening and deeply disturbing.
Several clear themes emerged for me this weekend. And while they are pretty obvious, I thought I would share them with the broader ACLU community, in an effort to give voice to what many of us are feeling and to spark a further discussion that will allow us to move together with greater hope and resolve through what are likely to be troubling days ahead.
While the events of this weekend withwhite supremacists holding lit torches frightened and outraged many Americans, we can never underestimate the impact of these images on African-Americans. Thatrally reflected this nations history of slavery, racial violence, and terrorism, which has left an indelible mark on our democracy to this day. As employees, members, or supporters of an organization dedicated to racial justice, we are all affected. Many of us are even more directly affected because we and our family members are the direct targets of the white supremacists. I know that speech alone has consequences, hurtful and deep, and thats why I believe its important to place the ACLUs representation of white supremacist demonstrators in Virginia in the broader context of the values and principles that have guided this organization for nearly a century.
First, the ACLU unequivocally rejects the ideology of white supremacists and we work actively with all our might to oppose that ideology in diverse communities across the country and to defend the right of all Americans to speak out against those views. By budget allocation, the national ACLUs top issue areas are ending mass incarceration, protecting LGBT rights, and safeguarding immigrants rights, demonstrating our commitment to advancing equality and justice with communities that are often the targets of white supremacists' bigotry and hate.
The ACLU has represented or publicly supported Black Lives Matter activists in First Amendment matters at least five times in recent months. Our work against police agencies surveillance of activists has been frequently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and American-Muslim organizations and individuals. Weve represented and taken public positions in support of anti-Trump protesters more than five times since the election and represented one of the Standing Rock protesters in a free speech case. The ACLU has also defended the free speech rights of African-American environmental activists in Alabama against a defamation lawsuit brought by the toxic waste-generating corporation they opposed. This is all in the past yearalone.
We are not newcomers to this work. Weve defended individuals targeted for their socialist, anarchist, and communist affiliations, for anti-war speech, and for civil rights activism throughout our history. We have repeatedly defended the free speech rights of day laborers against city ordinances grounded in anti-Latino racism that would have prohibited their expressing their availability for work. The ACLU was founded in 1920 when the attorney general of the United States carried out his Palmer raids to round up immigrants based on their subversive views. And we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the emerging labor movement of the early 20thcentury. The First Amendment freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press, and freedom of religionhas always been foundational for our organization.
Second,and more directly related to the events of this weekend, there are important reasons for our long history of defending freedom of speech including speech we abhor. We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views. Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground. Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it. Not all speech is morally equivalent, but the airing of hateful speech allows people of good will to confront the implications of such speech and reject bigotry, discrimination and hate. This contestation of values can only happen if the exchange of ideas is out in the open.
Thereis another practical reason that we have defended the free speech rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Today, as much as ever, the forces of white supremacy and the forces for equality and justice are locked in fierce battles, not only in Washington but in state houses and city councils around the country. Some government decision-makers are deeply opposed to the speech we support. We simply never want government to be in a position to favor or disfavor particular viewpoints. And the fact is,government officialsfrom the local to the nationalare more apt to suppress the speech of individuals or groups who disagree with government positions. Many of the landmark First Amendment cases, such as NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware and New York Times v. Sullivan, have been fought by African-American civil rights activists. Preventing the government from controlling speech is absolutely necessary to the promotion of equality.
Third, the First Amendment cannot be used as sword or shield to justify or rationalize violence. Violenceeven when accompanied by speech does not garner the protection of the First Amendment. It is also true that the airing of ideasno matter how repugnant or loathsomedoes not necessarily lead to violence. The violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment. The ACLU of Virginia went to court to insist that the First Amendment be appliedneutrally and equally to all protesters. Reasonable members of our community might differ on whether we ought to have brought that case. But I believe that having divergent views within an organization dedicated to freedom of speech is a sign of strength not weakness. I also believe the ACLU of Virginia made the right call here. Some have argued that we should not be putting resources toward anything that could benefit the voices of white supremacy. But we cannot stand by silently as the government repudiates the principles we have fought for and won in the courts when it violates clearly established First Amendment rights.
Invoking the threat of violence cannot serve as the governments carte blanche to shut down protests. If that were the case, governments would almost always be able to shut down protests, even when the protesters themselves are peaceful, because others could exercise a hecklers veto through violence or the threat of violence. We must not give government officials a free pass to cite public safety as a reason to stifle protest. They have a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of all protestersand may make their case in court for reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions. That is what we sought in our lawsuit in Virginia.
Thehard job for us now is to find concrete strategies for healing the divides that were laid bare this weekend. For the broader society, this would require that white supremacy, bigotry, and racism be confronted and rejected. Freedom of speech has to be valued and heralded as the cornerstone of our democratic society. Political leaders must shape the political discourse to underscore what binds us together as people, rather than exploit our differences. And government officials must neutrally apply the First Amendment and ensure the safety of all Americans when they take to the streets to exercise their constitutionally protected rights.
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 withis 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.
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- FIRST FIVE: Fighting over the meaning of First Amendment freedoms - hays Post - July 21st, 2020
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- This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: July 19, 2020 - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - July 21st, 2020
- Churchill: Troy preacher has the right to offend - Times Union - July 21st, 2020
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- First Amendment on the street | Opinion | dailyitem.com - Sunbury Daily Item - June 30th, 2020
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- Read the First Amendment | Letters To The Editor - The Central Virginian - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment right to protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville - The Florida Times-Union - June 30th, 2020
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- Supreme Court hands win to religious schools | TheHill - The Hill - June 30th, 2020
- Letter to the Editor: Remember and Defend the First Amendment - Dana Point Times - June 20th, 2020
- Another look at the First Amendment | Opinion - Franklin News Post - June 20th, 2020
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- The First Amendment protects attorneys from compelled speech | TheHill - The Hill - June 17th, 2020
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- Dear Journal: That's some amendment, that First Amendment; let's use it - The Daily World - June 17th, 2020
- Barr Threatens Suit To Stop Boltons Book Because The First Amendment Is, Like, More Of A Suggestion Really - Above the Law - June 17th, 2020
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- Opinion: 1st Amendment rights apparently only apply to the left - Juneau Empire - June 17th, 2020
- If you're planning to take part in protests, know your rights. Read this. - CNN - June 17th, 2020
- Opinion: Trump's Antifa crackdown treads on First Amendment - The Detroit News - June 17th, 2020
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- Arrest of CNN Crew in Minneapolis a 'Violation of First Amendment' - Voice of America - June 1st, 2020
- Trump, Twitter and the First Amendment - The New York Times - June 1st, 2020
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- ACLU issues warning to police to protect First Amendment rights of protesters - KATC Lafayette News - June 1st, 2020
- Federal, California and Local Law Enforcement's Statement on the Death of George Floyd and Riots Says They Will Continue to Work Together to Protect... - June 1st, 2020
- First Amendment Legal Expert Floyd Abrams on Trump's Chilling Executive Order Designed to Kill Free Speech - Showbiz411 - June 1st, 2020
- DC mayor institutes curfew and urges calm after weekend of unrest - KEYT - June 1st, 2020
- Open season on the free press: Journalists targeted in attacks as U.S. protests rage - Reuters - June 1st, 2020
- RCFP condemns attacks against journalists covering protests - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - June 1st, 2020
- Day 3 of protests in Portland, Oregon over death of George Floyd - KGW.com - June 1st, 2020
- As Waves of Protest Surge Across America - The New York Times - June 1st, 2020
- Trump Executive Order Violates the First Amendment - SF Bay Area Indymedia - June 1st, 2020
- DC mayor urges calm after protests nearby the White House occur for second consecutive night - CNN International - June 1st, 2020
- Man with bow is expected to be charged; Salt Lake City chief decries officer who knocked down elderly man with a cane - Salt Lake Tribune - June 1st, 2020
- Trump Executive Order Misreads Key Law Promoting Free Expression Online and Violates the First Amendment - EFF - May 29th, 2020
- Content Moderation, Section 230, and The First Amendment - AAF - American Action Forum - May 29th, 2020
- Times Union takes First Amendment and Journalist of the Year, 11 other awards in statewide contest - Times Union - May 29th, 2020
- First Amendment May Protect Use of Trademarks As Artistic Expression - JD Supra - May 29th, 2020
- Strictly Legal: Is Fox News entitled to First Amendment protection? - The Cincinnati Enquirer - May 29th, 2020
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- Trump vs. Twitter | Editorials | gjsentinel.com - The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel - May 29th, 2020
- Churches respond to COVID-19, First Amendment ruling - Morganton News Herald - May 29th, 2020
- 'The First Amendment is very clear': Sheriff's Office won't break up religious services for 'NY on PAUSE' violations - The Livingston County News - May 29th, 2020
- RCFP statement on Trump's social media executive order - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - May 29th, 2020
- WashU Expert: Trump attacks on Twitter betray free speech principles - Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom - May 29th, 2020
- Reexamining the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act | Morgan Lewis - Tech & Sourcing - JD Supra - May 29th, 2020
- Going to the dogs: the Ninth Circuit's erosion of trademark rights exclusive guest post - World Trademark Review - May 29th, 2020
- First Amendment Lawyer Dismisses Trumps Claim That Twitter Is Stifling Free Speech: He Doesnt Want Critics to Have a Chance to Respond - Mediaite - May 29th, 2020
- Liberals Have Rediscovered the 10th Amendment's Value During the Coronavirus Pandemic - Reason - May 29th, 2020
- Former DNC chair Donna Brazile claims 'theres no First Amendment right to lie. Her co-hosts on The Five erupt in mockery. - TheBlaze - May 29th, 2020
- Supreme Court: Clarence Thomas calls for shrinking the First Amendment - Vox.com - May 14th, 2020
- What words make up a true threat? Well, that depends - The Mercury - May 14th, 2020
- Onslow Sheriffs department will not interfere with indoor church services - Jacksonville Daily News - May 14th, 2020
- Religious freedom is under threat in the courtroom - UPI.com - May 14th, 2020
- Neuberger Demands That Carney Lift Restrictions On Worshipping Now - First State Update - May 14th, 2020
- The First Amendment To the Constitution of The United States of America - The Suburban Times - May 11th, 2020
- Exposing Russian information operations does not violate the First Amendment | TheHill - The Hill - May 11th, 2020
- The Supreme Court Could Use the First Amendment to Unleash a Robocall Nightmare - The Atlantic - May 11th, 2020
- Divorcing couples have First Amendment right to disparage each other on social media, SJC rules - The Boston Globe - May 11th, 2020
- The Price of the First Amendment "Is That We Must Put Up With a Good Deal of Rubbish" - Reason - May 11th, 2020
- Societe Generale: Availability of the first amendment to the 2020 Universal Registration Document - GlobeNewswire - May 11th, 2020
- Governors Can't Suspend the First Amendment - Daily Signal - May 11th, 2020
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- Lawsuit filed against Marco Island alleges first amendment violation - Marco News - May 4th, 2020
- First amendment rights should not be suppressed, even during pandemic The News Journal - The News Journal - May 4th, 2020
- Urgent Care Doctor Silenced By Youtube Says His First Amendment Rights Have Been Attacked - Sara A. Carter - May 4th, 2020
- 'ReOpen NC' Founder Has COVID-19, Says It Is Her First Amendment Right To Infect Others - Wonkette - May 4th, 2020