Once a bastion of free speech, the ACLU faces an identity crisis
It may be overkill. Mr Wizner, who heads the ACLU’s Free Speech Project, represented National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and spoke about important cases handled by his lawyers. But FIRE, he admitted, has taken a strong lead on campuses, where so many consequent battles are fought.
“FIRE doesn’t have the same tensions,” Mr. Wizner said. “At the ACLU, freedom of speech is one of 12 or 15 different values.
Traditionally, state affiliates of the ACLU monitor and advocate free speech cases, but in recent years some have avoided such fights. Here are some examples:
In 2015, students from the University of Missouri protested against racism and set up camp in a quad on campus. When a student journalist tried to take photos and speak to the protesters, students and a journalism professor physically prevented the journalist from doing so. The Missouri ACLU applauded the “courageous” leadership of student activists and faculty members, and two national ACLU officials wrote about the protests. They didn’t mention the First Amendment rights.
Four years later, at the University of Connecticut, two white college students returning home late at night repeated a racial insult aloud. In the ensuing uproar, university police arrested and charged the students with ridiculing them because of their race.
The Connecticut ACLU has demanded that the university hire 10 black faculty and staff and demand a freshman course on Ending Racism on Campus. He made no mention of the arrests other than to assert that the police are “an inherently white supremacist institution”.
Two days later, Mr. Cole issued a fix: The conduct of the students “is not criminal,” he said. “The First Amendment protects even offensive and hate speech. “
Even the New York Civil Liberties Union, traditionally affiliated with the independent-minded ACLU that has produced several national executive directors and has stood at the forefront of defending free speech cases, wanted not talk about these issues. A spokesperson for its executive director, Donna Lieberman, said: “We don’t think we have anything to add.”