Originally published Spring 2011.
As ACLU members, we share a common commitment to defend civil liberties, in the service of which sometimes comes the need to defend the indefensible.
In an 8 – 1 decision on March 2, 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist anti-gay group, over a family burdened by the loss in Iraq of their Marine son.
“The Court’s decision properly and respectfully acknowledges”, wrote ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro, “that the response to grief cannot include the abandonment of core First Amendment principles designed to protect the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.”
For some this case conjured up memories of the 1978 ACLU’s defense of the KKK’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois, residence of many holocaust survivors. Although an action that led to a decline in ACLU membership, it is now regarded by many as the ACLU’s finest hour by having demonstrated that constitutional rights must apply to all if they are to apply to one.
In 2004, the ACLU of Florida claimed that state law enforcement officers violated Rush Limbaugh’s privacy rights by seizing his medical records as part of an investigation involving alleged “doctor shopping”.
Why, ask some, should the ACLU come to the defense of Rush Limbaugh? To which Howard Simon, then Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, responded “We have always said that the ACLU’s real client is the Bill of Rights, and we will continue to safeguard the values of equality, fairness, and privacy for everyone, regardless of race, economic status, or political point of view.”
In declaring “the freer the speech, the stronger the democracy”, Tom Roden, guardian.co.uk, criticizes Europe for the restrictions it imposes on free speech, because such laws tend to drive extremists underground and into radical actions. Providing a democratic outlet, even for hateful speech, instills the belief that discourse alone may persuade others to the cause. Closing this opportunity indirectly fosters acts of intimidation and violence.
“Violent extremism is the resort of those that believe violence, not speech, is their best mechanism for social change.”
So the next time you are asked why the ACLU defends the indefensible, say it is to strengthen and safeguard democracy and extend an invitation to join the ACLU in this vital endeavor.
Roberta Schonemann and Judy Weitzman
Co-Presidents, Greater Lafayette Chapter ACLU of Indiana