How much do liberals love the First Amendment? Enough to join in the fight for an ‘alt-right,’ pro-Trump rally? The Oregon chapter of the ACLU in Portland suddenly finds itself testing how much its supporters really believe in free speech.
Life sure is easier for the ACLU these days when it’s lined up on a particular side. Any side opposite Trump.
Take the tiny Oregon chapter. Buoyed by a vow to fight President Donald Trump in court, the Oregon ACLU has seen its membership more than quadruple, from 10,000 to 42,000, just since last fall’s election.
But now, suddenly, it has seemingly switched sides — at least in the eyes of some supporters.
“Sounds to me like the Alt-Right has now infiltrated the ACLU,” read one angry message to the organization Tuesday.
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“So, the ACLU now stands firmly behind any and all hate speech. Got it,” read another.
“I’m not giving any more money to your organization,” said a third. “You’re more willing to stand with white supremacists than with true justice.”
What happened is the ACLU did what it’s supposed to do: It stood up for free speech. Only this time the speech is a provocative, right-wing rally planned Sunday in downtown Portland by “Patriot Prayer,” a group for “Trump, Freedom, and America.”
On Monday, the Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, asked that the permit for the rally be pulled. He said the demonstration has no place so soon after the racially charged MAX-train killings of two men last Friday, allegedly by a man who has attended some ‘alt-right’ rallies in the past.
“I’m reminded constantly that they have a First Amendment right to speak,” the mayor said. “My pushback on that is hate speech is not protected under the U.S. Constitution.”
Oh yes it is, responded the ACLU.
“The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period,” the local ACLU chapter pushed back.
I caught up with Mat dos Santos, ACLU Oregon’s legal director, who said the group’s position is indeed politically awkward in such a liberal city. But he said the organization was shocked the mayor had the constitutional basics so wrong.
“The city is grieving, so it’s understandable there are intense emotions,” dos Santos said. “But it’s a huge problem for a government leader like a mayor to start policing what is acceptable speech. It’s very troubling. So we felt we had to say something.”
What the mayor said is also factually untrue. Hate speech — bigoted or denigrating words directed at groups — is constitutionally protected. It only becomes unprotected if it threatens specific individuals or incites violence.
Some blamed the pro-Trump group for inciting the MAX train attack, while the group said the attacker is not a member, and that it had even booted him out of one rally for making racist comments.
Patriot Prayer is the same group that rallied to much concern in Seattle’s May Day, but here they ended up smoking a peace joint with left-wing protesters.
Dos Santos says defending free speech has become “a very heavy lift” for the ACLU.
“We get by far the most pushback on this issue from our members,” he said.
That’s because parts of the left want to adopt the European model where hate speech isn’t protected in the public square, he said. On the right, there are calls to limit protests — even what protesters can wear — plus President Trump himself has suggested jailing flag-burners and cracking down on others in the act of dissent.
“It’s not easy to talk about when there have just been hate killings in your city, but more than ever the First Amendment itself is on the line,” he said. “Do we really want the government deciding who can speak? The government I know will eventually use that power to silence the marginalized.”
The last time I wrote about the ACLU — after a couple of local Republicans joined the group in protest of Trump — a slew of conservatives wrote to say it’s nothing more than a liberal front.
“The ACLU is dedicated only to liberal causes, not the Constitution,” went a typical response. “The only way they will ever get more than token conservatives is if they represent the actual principle of freedom.”
Well, here you go: Turns out principle over politics does still beat on, barely, in this hyperpartisan world. Though maybe not for long, because by the sound of it, it’s less popular than ever.