One of the things of which I’m proud is my defense of free expression at my job, as when I suggested that the faculty endorse a version of the U of Chicago’s statement on same. As a teacher and as a creative writer, I think it necessary to allow the expression even of loathsome ideas, if for no other reason than to expose that which we would refute. And when I’m asked, “But what of hurtful or hateful speech/images/ideas?”, I have a story.
My brother changed his account of my parents’ deaths in the final weeks before his trial for their murders. After four years of claiming that they had been the victim of a home invasion, he announced that he had merely said that to spare the family’s reputation. What really happened, he said, was that in the course of an argument, my father had murdered my mother, and that in an ensuing struggle, my brother killed Dad in self defense.
This was (not to put too fine a point on it) a load of dung that would have dwarfed the Augean Stables. As it turned out, the physical evidence put the lie to his claims, the jury rejected his story, and he was convicted, as he should have been. But I saw Mike’s story in the Cincinnati newspaper. I heard his attorneys argue that theory of the case in their closing statements. And I knew and know that there are people (including some who should know better) who bought his story, whether because they had an interest in my brother’s acquittal, or because they distrusted the system, or perhaps for some other reason — it doesn’t matter much to me, really.
And people have asked me what it was like to know that argument was being made, and what it was like to have it made in my presence. Obviously, it was painful — a smearing of the best man I’m ever likely to know, the man whose name I carry with pride. Not content with having killed my folks, Mike was willing to kill my father’s good name as well, in order to try to escape the consequences of his actions.
But I believed then, and I believe now, that he should have his opportunity to make his claim in open court for the jury and the world to hear and to accept or (as they did, thank God) to reject it. The fact that it hurt me — and it did, and knowing that some folks chose to believe it still does — was less important even to me than his chance to present his side and his lies. As it turns out, I believe justice was as done as we’re likely to get in this world, but I also know that under other circumstances, it may not have been, and has not been for everyone. But my point here is that my brother is a human being and an American citizen, and must have been allowed to present his side, even though it was hurtful, and even though it was demonstrated to be false. But you know what? I heard my father’s killer (or his representatives) claim justification for what he did. And I’m still here. It is painful, but endurable. And I would rather have endured that pain than cheat my brother of his right to make his claim.
In short, I argue that rights are not merely for us and for the people with whom we agree. If we expect to be able to exercise our rights, we dare not prevent others from exercising theirs — even and especially when we disagree with those others. After all, a day will come when people will disagree with us, but we will still want and need to speak.
Historically, a bastion of this defense of our rights has come from the American Civil Liberties Union. During my life, I’ve seen them argue on behalf of causes I admire and people I despise, and I’ve known that whether I liked their clients or not, the ACLU was willing to fight against steps down the slippery slope between citizens and subjects.
However, per an article at Reason today, I’m no longer sure that’s the case. According to a leaked memo:
The American Civil Liberties Union will weigh its interest in protecting the First Amendment against its other commitments to social justice, racial equality, and women’s rights, given the possibility that offensive speech might undermine ACLU goals.
“Our defense of speech may have a greater or lesser harmful impact on the equality and justice work to which we are also committed,” wrote ACLU staffers in a confidential memo obtained by former board member Wendy Kaminer.
[. . .] Moving forward, when deciding whether to take a free speech case, the organization will consider “factors such as the (present and historical) context of the proposed speech; the potential effect on marginalized communities; the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values; and the structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur.”
And that brings us to our QotD, from Reason‘s Robby Soave:
Leadership would probably like the ACLU to remain a pro-First Amendment organization, but they would also like to remain in good standing with their progressive allies. Unfortunately, young progressives are increasingly hostile to free speech, which they view as synonymous with racist hate speech. Speech that impugns marginalized persons is not speech at all, in their view, but violence. This is why a student Black Lives Matter group shut down an ACLU event at the College of William & Mary last year, chanting “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution.” Campus activism is illiberal, and liberal free speech norms conflict with the broad protection of emotional comfort that the young, modern left demands.
The ACLU’s capitulation to the anti-speech left should serve as a wake up call for true liberals.
Well, there are other groups. . . still, it’s saddening to watch someone selling out.