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The ACLU Used To Stand For Free Speech And Civil Liberties, But Now It’s Just Another Progressive Organization

By Jaimee Marshall··  12 min read
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If you’d have told Ira Glasser 25 years ago that the American Civil Liberties Union, an apolitical organization that was formed to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans, would go from defending the rights of neo-Nazis to march in the streets to becoming a progressive political organization, he probably would have laughed in your face.

That’s because the ACLU used to be a legitimate, neutral organization that stood up for the constitutional rights of all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation or how egregious their views were. Today, unfortunately, it’s just not the same organization that it once was. From running not-so-subtle political ads endorsing Democrats and desecrating the presumption of innocence to blatant corruption and backpedaling on freedom of speech, the ACLU has fallen. It’s fallen so, so far. 

Ira Glasser is the former executive director of the ACLU (he retired in 2001), and he no longer recognizes the organization he once championed as the heartbeat of civil liberties. The ACLU didn’t just fight for free speech, it fought for free speech that was unpopular, detested, and considered reprehensible. They did it knowing that “hate speech” is up to the decider and the government shouldn’t be able to censor you based on their personal feelings about what you have to say. However, the ACLU has distanced itself from its principled stance on free speech and other civil liberties in recent years. When asked if the ACLU would take on the Skokie case today, Glasser isn’t so sure that they would. 

What Is the ACLU?

It was 1920 when the ACLU was founded in response to widespread civil rights violations in the wake of the Palmer Raids. The Palmer Raids occurred in a sensitive political climate when communism was the feared enemy looming around the corner. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer rounded up people he believed to be radicals and deported them. Those who were arrested were denied their Fourth Amendment rights, as no warrants were issued for these arrests and the prisoners were held in terrible conditions and treated brutally. Many who were arrested had no connections to radical groups and some of those who were deported were American citizens. Horrified by the violation of constitutional rights amid the red scare, a small group of individuals formed the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The core value of the ACLU was to protect every American’s constitutional rights and civil liberties. They have spent decades defending people’s rights to privacy, due process, freedom of speech, and bodily autonomy through litigation and political lobbying. The ACLU offers legal assistance in cases where civil liberties are under attack and their work has led to many cases being heard by the Supreme Court. They also lobby for policy positions that are established by its board of directors that are in line with their values, such as upholding the separation of church and state and opposing the death penalty.

The core value of the ACLU was to protect every American’s constitutional rights and civil liberties.

The ACLU’s Track Record of Doing Important Apolitical Work for Free Speech

One of the most famous and controversial cases that the ACLU took on was in 1997, when the ACLU legally represented neo-Nazis to defend their right to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois while wearing swastika armbands, a place that many Holocaust survivors called home. The ACLU successfully argued in federal court that three ordinances that placed limits on their rights to freedom of expression and assembly be struck down. Their principled fight to uphold freedom of speech, even for those they most detest, came at a price, however. 

In response to their decision to defend the rights of neo-Nazis, the ACLU lost tens of thousands of members. Their central argument was that if the government were given the authority to silence neo-Nazis, they could also wield that power to silence any other so-called "radicals," like civil rights leaders. Glasser, defending the controversial stance of the ACLU against detractors in his latest documentary Mighty Ira, said, “I used to say to students in the '90s who wanted to have hate speech codes on college campuses that barred hateful speech that had they been in effect on college campuses in the '60s, Malcolm X would've been their most frequent victim and maybe Eldridge Cleaver, but not David Duke." 

They also legally defended the Westboro Baptist Church, a radical Christian group that would picket the funerals of gay soldiers with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They also provided legal representation to the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Georgia when they were unfairly rejected from the state’s “Adopt-a-Highway” program.

The ACLU built a track record of defending anyone’s rights, no matter what side of the political aisle they fell on or how controversial their views were. They defended teacher John T. Scopes who was banned from teaching evolution in a science class in a school in Tennessee. They opposed the internment camps that Japanese people were placed in under FDR’s administration in 1942, helped to impeach Richard Nixon, and did lots of civil rights work for women and African Americans. Their work with the NAACP helped bring Brown v. Board before the Supreme Court, where institutionalized school segregation was struck down. It was the ACLU we have to thank for our Miranda Rights being read to us when arrested by the police. They argued Miranda v. Arizona, the very case that determined police are required to read us our rights. Most recently, their work on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 repealed the Defensive Marriage Act and federally legalized same-sex marriage.

The ACLU’s Partisan Shift into a Progressive Organization

As you can see from the long list of previous work the ACLU has taken on defending all types of characters in the court of law, the organization used to be known as a politically neutral organization. However, that organizational model has explicitly and intentionally changed. Anthony Romero is the current executive director of the ACLU. He replaced Glasser in 2000 after Glasser heavily pushed for him to take his place. Since then, Romero says the ACLU now looks to the NRA, of all places, as their organizational model, or at least their inspiration. That’s because the NRA has successfully created a “gun culture” and was able to mobilize voters around a central issue. While Romero insists that they’re still different because they don’t endorse political candidates or give money to candidates, this is becoming increasingly untrue. While the ACLU claims they don’t explicitly endorse political candidates, they do just about that without overtly saying so. The ACLU is a tax-exempt organization because it doesn’t endorse political candidates, but they’re certainly walking a fine line.

The ACLU has pumped millions of dollars into congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. 

They’ve pumped millions of dollars into congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, running political attack ads against candidates and not-so-subtly implying that people should throw their support behind the other candidate. The ACLU spent money on political ads supporting gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and ran attack ads against Kansas City gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach. After Christine Ford came out with sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the ACLU immediately took her side, denouncing the Supreme Court justice nominee and running ads against him. The ads called for Senator Cory Gardner to oppose Judge Kavanaugh because of the allegations against him and compared him to other powerful men like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, saying, “We’ve seen this before; denials from powerful men.” Isn’t the presumption of innocence a civil liberty the ACLU used to work tirelessly to defend? 

During the Obama administration, Title IX was wreaking havoc on the due process of students on college campuses who were being accused of sexual assault and denied their rights, yet the ACLU remained completely silent when these policies were in place. It wasn’t until Betsy Devos announced changes to Title IX under the Trump administration that the ACLU condemned the expansions of due process and the presumption of innocence for the accused and filed a lawsuit against Devos for violating the original spirit of Title IX. The ACLU, of all places, is throwing their hat behind kangaroo courts and guilt by association? 

More changes came after the ACLU faced backlash for defending protestors at the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville when it denied Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, a permit to march in protest of the removal of the statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee. 

They faced fierce backlash, and an ACLU speaker was shouted down by students who were associated with Black Lives Matter. This caused the ACLU to not only publicly denounce the Unite the Right rally as being a violent white supremacist march, but they then issued new case selection guidelines. The memo was leaked and revealed that the ACLU will no longer represent freedom of speech cases for those who wished to protest while armed. The ACLU previously defended Americans' First and Second Amendment rights, but now the guidelines read as follows: “The ACLU generally will not represent protesters who seek to march while armed. It is important that this content-neutral rule be applied without regard to a speaker’s political views. It should also apply whether or not state law permits or prohibits the carrying of weapons in a protest.” 

In other words, even if it’s completely legal to protest while armed, we no longer wish to defend these rights. Even worse, the guidelines, for the first time, advised that the content be a reason for refusing to take on a freedom of speech case. The guidelines included determining “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values... For example, a decision by the ACLU to represent a white supremacist group may well undermine relationships with allies or coalition partners, [and] create distrust with particular communities." 

Glasser went on Real Time with Bill Maher to express his disappointment in these new guidelines, insisting he’s not sure that the ACLU would ever take on a case like Skokie if it happened today. Talking about the content-based speech guidelines, Glasser says, "In other words, before they're going to defend your free speech, they want to see what you say. That's the ACLU saying that? No, that's the government, what's the ACLU doing saying that?" Glasser is a self-described progressive liberal, so he, more than anyone, can sympathize with progressive politics. However, he’s disturbed by the ACLU’s move to become an overtly progressive political organization rather than the neutral defender of civil liberties that it once was. 

In Mighty Ira, Glasser says, “If you don’t have a strong ACLU defending the right to free speech, regardless of what that speech is, then you lose something that took 100 years to build. Having one more liberal-progressive organization out there is nice if you are a liberal or a progressive. But there are a lot of liberal-progressive organizations out there. There’s only one ACLU.”

ACLU Corruption

The final nail in the coffin for any shred of legitimacy the ACLU still had left as an organization was when it was revealed that the ACLU helped to ghostwrite an opinion editorial for Amber Heard for The Washington Post, where she heavily implied that her ex-husband Johnny Depp abused her. Ultimately, Depp won a defamation lawsuit against Heard, proving all elements of defamation, and was awarded $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The article at the center of the defamation suit was penned by none other than the ACLU, who helped write the first draft. As we previously reported, the ACLU was subpoenaed to testify in court about whether or not Heard had truly donated the $3.5 million she claimed she donated to the ACLU and they stated they had not received the money. 

The ACLU helped ghostwrite Amber Heard’s infamous and defamatory Washington Post op-ed.

The subpoena came in response to the ACLU’s refusal to produce documents proving that Heard donated her divorce settlement money to their organization. The ACLU likely didn’t want to produce them unless they had to because it was a bad look for their organization to be exposed as helping someone falsely accuse an innocent man and then hide the fact that she never donated the divorce settlement money she claimed to have donated. Even worse than penning a piece about being a spokesperson for domestic violence, they admitted to intentionally timing the publication to coincide with the release of Aquaman, in which Heard played a major role. Heard is also still an ACLU ambassador after being found guilty of defaming a man in her op-ed that was ghostwritten by the ACLU. 

Attorney Ken White thinks it's problematic for the ACLU to be penning op-eds seemingly in exchange for donations. While Heard herself did not donate any money, the ACLU did receive donations on her behalf from Elon Musk, who is one of their top donors. Law & Crime interviewed White, who said, “They say that there wasn’t a quid pro quo: It wasn’t like, you know, ‘I donate and you write something for me.’” White goes on to say, “But I think, doing an op-ed on behalf of someone who’s a major donor, that’s a disclosure that should be made. And it’s a problematical appearance.”

Closing Thoughts

The ACLU used to do good, important work, but now it’s nothing more than another progressive political lobbying organization that doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to civil liberties. Not only do they not stand up for the same civil liberties that propelled their organization into the forefront of the national civil liberty conversation, but they overtly spit in the face of civil liberties like due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to bear arms, and freedom of assembly. Their disgusting attempt to use a celebrity to push for their sexual-based violence narrative is only the latest example of how their push to become more political has obscured their ability to do the work that needs to be done. As Glasser has said, there’s only one ACLU, but perhaps it’s not the same one it once was. 

If you would like to support a real nonpartisan organization devoted to defending civil liberties like freedom of speech, consider supporting the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

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