Five days after the violence that occurred during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, The New York Times published an article entitled “The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech.” The article puts forth the idea that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should stop defending the First Amendment rights of far-right and far left organizations.
The piece was a response to the ACLU’s successful lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville for attempting to revoke the protest permit of the organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally. The organization has received much criticism for its actions. On their website, the ACLU defended their lawsuit: “We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views.”
The author of The New York Times piece argues that the ACLU should rethink its stance on the First Amendment because marginalized people do not have the same “power of expression” that other Americans enjoy. The author, K-Sue Park, cites disproportional wealth, structural discrimination, death threats, and subtle governmental action as reasons some Americans cannot use free speech as well as others. However, the arguments are flawed because they miss the point of the First Amendment. She writes:
The question the organization should ask itself is: Could prioritizing First Amendment rights make the distribution of power in this country even more unequal and further silence the communities most burdened by histories of censorship?
First, the author posits that wealthier people can reach more people with their freedom of expression than those who do not have the same resources. She refers to the Citizens United case, which removed restrictions on the political expenditures of corporations. The ACLU advocated for Citizen’s United, arguing that restricting political donations was a violation of the First Amendment. However, this argument ignores the actual meaning of the first amendment.
While wealth can certainly make it easier for a person to disseminate their views, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment. The Constitution states that the government cannot create laws that restrict American’s right to express their opinions – it does not guarantee that every American will be heard equally. Likewise, the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms – but it doesn’t guarantee that every individual will be able to own a firearm if they cannot afford to buy one. The ACLU’s objective isn’t to ensure that every American is heard, it is to make sure that the government doesn’t interfere with a person’s freedom of expression.
Secondly, the author states that law enforcement restricts “the exercise of speech, such as police intimidation of African-Americans and Latinos.” She gives the example of a young black kid who is arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana. She states that this person will “face consequences that will directly affect his ability to have a voice in public life.” Again, the author is missing the point of the constitutional right to free speech.
When someone is sent to prison for a crime, they have forfeited some of their rights – for example; felons are not allowed to vote or purchase a gun. However, they do not lose their right to freedom of expression. The notion that the justice system prevents minorities from expressing their opinions is absurd.
In the article, the author argues that there are people outside of the government who attempt to stifle free speech through threats. She states that “left-wing academics across the country face this kind of speech suppression, yet they do not benefit from a strong, uniform legal response.” The author brings up the fact that some black professors received physical threats for speaking out against white supremacy. She is right.
It is clear that some left-wing professors have received threats for their political views. However, the author is not telling the whole story. Conservative speakers have also received death threats for espousing right-wing ideas. Podcaster and commentator Ben Shapiro is a prime example – he has received numerous threats against his life because he regularly expresses conservative opinions.
Regrettably, there are people on both sides of the political divide who use threats of violence to restrict the speech of those with whom they disagree. Either way, the law states that threats are not a protected form of speech – people who engage in this type of behavior are committing a crime. Moreover, people on the left are far more likely to use violence to suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree. Incidents of leftist violence have occurred at universities and pro-Trump rallies.
Lastly, Park states that the government has suppressed free speech. As an example, she uses the protests at the inauguration: “Some of the protesters at President Trump’s inauguration are facing felony riot charges and decades in prison.” Of course, she never discusses the reason why these “protesters” are being charged with felonies. These individuals had vandalized property and set fires in the D.C. area. They are not being punished for expressing political views; they are facing jail time because of their violent activities.
The author of The New York Times piece is making the overall assertion that the ACLU should rethink their stance on freedom of expression because all Americans cannot contribute to political discourse equally. This argument is not valid. While we have the right to speak our minds freely, we don’t necessarily have the right to be heard. The government cannot limit the speech of one group of individuals while guaranteeing that other groups are heard.
The reality is that Americans should protect our right to express our opinions, even if it means allowing others to proclaim odious views. This piece is yet another example of the left’s mission to limit the speech of those with whom they disagree – and conservatives would be well-advised to stand against it.