In a confidential memo obtained by former board member Wendy Kaminer, the American Civil Liberties Union has defined a policy that retreats from and undermines—perhaps the best word is betrays— its traditional mission of protecting the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment rights of all Americans. The memo says in part,
Work to protect speech rights may raise tensions with racial justice, reproductive freedom, or a myriad of other rights, where the content of the speech we seek to protect conflicts with our policies on those matters, and/or otherwise is directed at menacing vulnerable groups or individuals….We are also firmly committed to fighting bigotry and oppression against other marginalized groups, including women, immigrants, religious groups, LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. Accordingly, we work to extend the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights to people who have traditionally been denied those rights. And the ACLU understands that speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality.
…There is no presumption that the First Amendment trumps all other amendments, or vice versa. We recognize that taking a position on one issue can affect our advocacy in other areas and create particular challenges for staff members engaged in that advocacy. For example, a decision by the ACLU to represent a white supremacist group may well undermine relationships with allies or coalition partners, create distrust with particular communities, necessitate the expenditure of resources to mitigate the impact of those harms, make it more difficult to recruit and retain a diverse staff and board across multiple dimensions, and in some circumstances, directly further an agenda that is antithetical to our mission and values and that may inflict harm on listeners…Our defense of speech may have a greater or lesser harmful impact on the equality and justice work to which we are also committed, depending on 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….
Where the ACLU defends the right to speak of those with whom it disagrees, it should generally engage in counter-measures both to reinforce the
values the speaker attacks and to make clear that we do not endorse the substance of the views. Some options might include:
1. Denouncing the views in press statements, op-eds, social media, and other available
2. Participating in counter-protests. When we assist people in securing the right to march or demonstrate for views we condemn, we can and generally should support
and participate in counter-protests, with consideration given to participation by senior staff or board members to highlight the ACLU’s commitment and ensure that
such participation does not disproportionately burden other staff.
3. Supporting other counter-speech by supporting, organizing or helping to organize events, facilitating access to media, or taking other actions that will amplify and
strengthen the voices of those espousing our values.
4. Expanding our work on behalf of the values the speaker attacks.
5. Earmarking any fees recovered from the case to projects within the ACLU that further the values that we support and the speaker attacked, or donating them to another organization that works to advance those values, preferably in the geographical area where the speech occurred….