As a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I occasionally take a moment to check in on the organization I support and see if it is still true to its mission of defending and preserving individual rights and liberties. Today was a good time to take stock: The ACLU greeted its Twitter followers with a back-to school reminder of what truly matters in America these days:
Back to school list:
👇 Gender neutral pronounshttps://t.co/Oqh0uYFNw0
— ACLU (@ACLU) August 30, 2018
It’s easy to dismiss this statement as just some low-rent virtue signaling, the sort of heavy-handed self-pleasuring the millennials likely running the organization’s social media department mistake for meaning. But take a look at the ACLU’s priorities these days, and it becomes clear that virtue signaling may be all that there is. On the topic of gender, for example, a non-tenured professor at Brown University faced pressure from the university and her colleagues after she published a scholarly article in a leading peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE, suggesting that adolescents might begin to identify as transgender for no other reason save for peer pressure and cultural influence. For committing the crime of practicing empirical science, Littman was soon taken to task by the university’s intellectual inquisitors. Brown’s LGBTQ Center, for example, released a fiery statement arguing that the study “has emboldened bigoted and discriminatory attitudes that have real-life consequences for members of our community especially trans youth. This has been harmful and dehumanizing to our students as well as staff and faculty.” The university reacted swiftly, removing news of the research from its site, a highly unorthodox step of distancing itself from Littman and her work. You’d expect the ACLU to sweep in with some stirring defense of free speech, such as citing Adlai Stevenson Jr.’s unimprovable quip that the “definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” That is precisely what the organization did in 2005, when another professor, Ward Churchill, was being accosted by the academic institution where he worked, the University of Colorado. But Churchill merely cheered on the 9/11 attacks against America and claimed that the “little Eichmanns” who worked at the World Trade Center got their comeuppance for being a part of an imperialist, capitalist system; he didn’t question the progressive dogma concerning gender, or dare to suggest, with factual evidence to boot, that incessantly carping about gender pronouns may actually cause young people considerable mental anguish. Hence, the ACLU remained silent on Littman’s case, leaving the task of defending free and unfettered academic research to a tiny handful of her brave colleagues.
Everywhere you look on the issues presenting the clearest and most distressing challenges to the First Amendment, the ACLU has been equally conspicuously quiet. After a Black Lives Matter bully shut down the organization’s own representative at the College of William and Mary last year, the ACLU issued a statement condemning the use of the heckler’s veto: “Disruption that prevents a speaker from speaking,” it read, “and audience members from hearing the speaker, is not constitutionally protected speech even on a public college campus subject to the First Amendment.” But taking BLM to task for anything, even for violently preventing the exchange of ideas that is the very point of a public university, proved politically risky for an organization increasingly interested in shedding its bipartisan credentials and locating itself in the sharp left corner of the progressive movement. Soon enough, the ACLU removed the line quoted above, as well as a few others that state plainly that shouting down your opponents and preventing them from sharing their opinions isn’t protected speech. Reached for comment by the First Amendment scholar and University of Washington School of Law professor Ronald K.L. Collins, a spokesman for the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, Bill Farrar, said: “We revised our statement based on internal feeedback from our colleagues,” and agreed that the deleted passages, which did nothing more than state uncontested constitutional law precedents, no longer reflected his organization’s positions.
The ACLU did put out a few meager statements opposing the decision by numerous social media companies to pull radio host Alex Jones’s content from their platforms, but did almost nothing to oppose a stunning surge of limitations to free speech by Facebook, which is currently the world’s most powerful media monopoly and which has repeatedly proven itself to be in the business of squelching speech it finds unpopular.
And, perhaps most shockingly, the organization that once won acclaim for defending the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie has done an about-face: Last year, the national organization’s director, Anthony Romero, told the Wall Street Journal the ACLU will no longer defend any group that insists on marching with firearms. “We don’t have to represent them,” Romero said. “They can find someone else.” This decision to announce that the ACLU will, going forward, refuse to defend a constitutional right may, lawyer and blogger Scott Greenfield wrote, may have more to do with cash than it does with principles. “The ACLU has been on a huge money roll since the Trump immigration Executive Orders,” Greenfield wrote, “when it captured the hearts and wallets of the deeply passionate. There’s a thing about money. Get some and you want more. More, more, more. The excuse is that you need money to do your good works. The failure of the excuse is that to get the moolah, you forfeit good works for popular works.”
Whatever the reason for the ACLU’s shift, it’s clear that the organization is now not up to much more than what they’ve tweeted this weekend, trivial virtue-signaling which displays a total vacancy of purpose. The ACLU is done. But the purpose for which the ACLU was formed is more important than ever. What we need now, more desperately than ever, are smart and dedicated lawyers willing to put aside the inflammations of ideology and defend free speech.