The rights group’s defense of a planned rally in Virginia, before the violence, has parallels to its seminal role in a proposed neo-Nazi gathering in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was under severe duress. Hate mail poured in, as did death threats — and the executive director was spat on.
That moment, 40 years ago, fought over a planned rally by a small group of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, would become one of the organization’s most notable cases, and to some, among its finest moments. The ACLU cemented its reputation for fighting for civil liberties, even, or especially, if it meant, in the words of its director at the time, “defending my enemy.”
That philosophy came into renewed focus last week, as the organization went to court to fight for the right of white nationalists to hold a rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The episode is unlikely to be remembered for the constitutional principle, but for its violent toll: brawls, ugly confrontations and the death of a 32-year-old woman.
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“I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis,” a member of the ACLU of Virginia board of directors, Waldo Jaquith, posted on Twitter, saying he was resigning from the organization. Among his parting messages to the organization: “Don’t defend Nazis to allow them to kill people.”
This year has been a banner one for the civil-liberties group. Membership in the group has almost quadrupled, and donations online have reached $83 million since the election, when, in a typical period, about $5 million or less might be expected, said a spokeswoman for the ACLU, Stacy Sullivan.
But the group’s defense of the Charlottesville rally has crystallized a recurring challenge for the organization: How to pursue its First Amendment advocacy, even for hate-based groups, without alienating supporters.
It has seen a backlash on social media after the violence in Charlottesville. Even Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said that because of the ACLU’s intervention, the rally was unwisely held downtown, where it “became a powder keg.”
Sullivan acknowledged the organization was aware of “a lot of threats” on social media of people saying they would drop their membership, although neither she nor the group’s executive director, Anthony Romero, would provide details.
With numerous “alt-right” rallies scheduled in coming days and weeks, the ACLU also faces the question of how to respond to the next case involving a white-nationalist rally that local authorities try to block. Alt-right refers to a small, far-right movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism.
Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, said this week that the group would remain committed to its free-speech advocacy. “This is not a new juncture for the ACLU,” he said. “We have a longstanding history of defending the rights of groups we detest and with whom we fundamentally disagree.”
Even so, in the first months of the Trump presidency, the ACLU seemed to be more cautious about which fights it would embrace. It stayed uncharacteristically quiet when the University of California, Berkeley, canceled speeches by two right-wing writers and provocateurs, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, this year, issuing statements and tweets, mainly after the controversy had already passed. When a federal judge in April weighed whether Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called alt-right, could hold an event at a public university in Alabama, the ACLU was absent from the case.
The ACLU has long maintained that defending the First Amendment rights of white supremacists vindicates constitutional rights where they are under attack and protects speech rights for all groups. Social justice and equality, the group believes, are best-served with more speech, on all sides, and by confronting hateful ideas head-on, rather than suppressing them.
But some on the left argue that freedom of speech should not extend to hate speech. Under this view, defending the free-speech rights of racists does not, in the long run, strengthen the civil liberties of minority groups.
Those divisions were on display within the organization this past week, when the ACLU took on lawsuits in support of two figures associated with the alt-right. In once case, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Washington Metro system, for, among other things, removing advertisements for Yiannopoulos’ book “Dangerous” from subway stations and cars.
The organization’s Virginia affiliate then brought a lawsuit representing a Charlottesville man who was organizing a rally to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The City Council had changed the park’s name from Lee Park to Emancipation Park in June. After initially granting him a permit to hold the rally at the park, the city tried to move it to a larger park, about a mile away.
The ACLU argued that the rally organizers ought to be able to stage the event at the park associated with Lee, where the symbolism was greatest and the meaning of the rally clearest. The city argued that for safety reasons the protest should be moved to the other site. A federal judge sided with the ACLU.
That led at least a few people to say the ACLU bore some responsibility for the resulting violence. “If we hadn’t intervened, the event would have been held a mile away, far from downtown, and three people would be alive,” Jaquith, the Virginia board member, posted on Twitter.
Romero rejected that view. He placed some of the responsibility for the violence on local authorities, saying they had taken a hands-off approach to policing the event, even as it devolved into violence. “I want to be clear, the violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment,” he said.
David Goldberger, a former ACLU lawyer who represented the neo-Nazis in the Skokie case, said Charlottesville would likely pose a test for the group, not unlike the Skokie case had four decades ago.
The neo-Nazis who planned to march in Skokie were never expected to number more than a few dozen. So marginal and universally despised, they struggled to muster numbers beyond that. (The march never occurred; the group held a demonstration in Chicago’s Marquette Park in 1978.)
As future cases involving the free-speech rights of white supremacists surface, it remains to be seen how the events in Charlottesville may affect the ACLU’s response. “The death may make people have second thoughts; I surely hope not,” Goldberger said. “This is a real crossroads for the ACLU, and I think it’s going to choose the right road.”