ACLU takes heat for its free-speech defense of white supremacist group

Posted at 5:10 PM, Aug 16, 2017

Last weekend's deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has put the American Civil Liberties Union on the defensive for representing the white supremacists and generated furious debate over First Amendment speech rights.

The ACLU has been here before.

In a statement posted Tuesday night, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero insisted hateful, bigoted speech must be aired.

"Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground," Romero wrote. "Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it."

Saturday's carnage, and President Donald Trump's conflicted responses, have further inflamed America's racial tensions and show no sign of receding from public debate. The ACLU is under scrutiny now too -- as it has been many times before when interests of free speech, safety and societal norms collide.

Stacy Sullivan, ACLU associate director of strategic communications, said Wednesday that Romero was trying to answer outside critics as well as ACLU board members, donors and staff working for racial justice and concerned about the representation of white supremacists.

In his statement, Romero referred to the ACLU's history of representing Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other detestable groups through the years and tacitly acknowledged the current dissent within ACLU ranks over its litigation ensuring that demonstrators could gather last Saturday in a downtown Charlottesville park.

Counter-protesters were at the scene, and as the two sides clashed, James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly rammed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Fields, of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder.

"The violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment," Romero wrote, countering critics who have argued that the ACLU's effort to prevent Charlottesville officials from moving the protest out of downtown contributed to the violent confrontations.

Romero's piece was posted Tuesday, soon after Trump had prompted public outrage with his remarks at Trump Tower in New York City about "blame on both sides." Trump's response to the rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis has become arguably the most contentious of his turbulent seven-month presidency. He has been reluctant to denounce the white supremacists that started it all, instead saying there was blame all around.

The ACLU represented Jason Kessler, organizer of Unite the Right, as the group fought the city's attempt last week to revoke its permit to gather in a downtown Charlottesville park to protest removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city had raised safety concerns about the number of demonstrators expected to attend.

US District Court Judge Glen Conrad, who rejected the revocation, noted that the city had left in place permits for counter-protesters near the downtown park and appeared to be targeting white nationalist Kessler for his views.

Some people, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, leveled blame at the ACLU for the resulting violence.

"The city of Charlottesville asked for that to be moved out of downtown Charlottesville to a park about a mile and a half away -- a lot of open fields," McAuliffe said on NPR Monday. "That was the place that it should've been. We were, unfortunately, sued by the ACLU. And the judge ruled against us."

McAuliffe contended the result in the middle of downtown was "a powder keg."

Virginia ACLU executive director Claire Gastanaga countered in a statement after McAuliffe's interview, "Our lawsuit challenging the city to act constitutionally did not cause violence nor did it in any way address the question whether demonstrators could carry sticks or other weapons at the events."

She said Charlottesville officials had failed to make the case ahead of time that danger at the downtown park was imminent.

Romero said he thought the Virginia chapter "made the right call here."

"Some have argued that we should not be putting resources toward anything that could benefit the voices of white supremacy," he said. "But we cannot stand by silently as the government repudiates the principles we have fought for -- and won -- in the courts when it violates clearly established First Amendment rights."

Romero referred to the ACLU's nearly century-long history of defending unpopular causes. One of the most prominent instances came in 1978 when the organization represented a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, home to many Holocaust survivors.

As is happening today, some ACLU members said they would resign or stop donating. The ACLU's Sullivan acknowledged that some staffers were upset with the Virginia ACLU's legal work and that the organization was concerned about donors turning away but described the current criticism as "muted" compared to the ACLU's "Skokie moment."

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, 24 hours after Romero's post had gone up, it had generated 75 responses. Most were anonymous and no unanimity emerged among the views. Some commended the ACLU's unequivocal support for free speech. Some said the organization had wrongly ignored crucial safety concerns. Some were torn.

Some referenced the deaths of Heyer and two state troopers killed in a helicopter crash as they helped monitor the Charlottesville scene.

Said one anonymous ACLU member, "I fully support the ACLU's defense of free speech rights, including groups such as the KKK, neo Nazis and other hate groups. However, I am deeply disturbed by the ACLU's decision to oppose local officials in Virginia who sought not to prevent the recent Charlottesville rally but to locate it in a place that would make it easier to keep all in attendance safe. ... (T)hree people are now dead and I cannot escape the thought that my donations may have contributed indirectly to their deaths."