The American Civil Liberties Union has been much scrutinized since its decision to represent white supremacists in their quest to march in Charlottesville, Va. Board members have resigned and allies have declared that the ACLU, at long last, has gone too far. In the aftermath, the ACLU of California issued an equivocal statement, endorsed by the national ACLU, clarifying that the 1st Amendment “does not protect people who incite or engage in violence” but reiterating the organization’s complete support for “freedom of speech and expression.”
Commentators have rightly observed that the ACLU has defended far-right speech since its founding, despite fierce criticism. But there is a common and mistaken premise in this analysis. It assumes that the organization has always believed, as it does today, that “freedom of expression is an end in itself.” In reality, the early ACLU viewed free speech as a tool of social justice, suited to particular purposes under particular conditions.
To correct the prevailing misconception, we need to look back to the 1930s, when economic desperation was fueling a battle between reactionary impulses and radical aspirations, and Nazis first appeared on American streets. Even as American fascists appealed to anti-Semitism and white privilege, the ACLU fought for their right to hold rallies. Although it did not oppose regulations against armed marches, it insisted that “the right to parade,” even “in brown shirts with swastikas,” should “never be denied.”
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