Charlottesville Forces ACLU to Rethink its Approach to Free Speech: VOX Report

Written by Dara Lind,VOX | Published on: August 21, 2017

ACLU will no longer defend the right to protest when the protesters want to carry guns.

Photo credit: Washington Post/Getty

“The ACLU has blood on its hands.”

It was a not-uncommon sentiment in the wake of last week’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, in which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed (allegedly at the hands of white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.) and far-right activists assaulted and intimidated counterprotesters.

The ACLU had sued the city of Charlottesville to allow the Unite the Right rally to happen downtown. And now, it had happened, and blood had been spilled.

The ACLU’s been through this cycle before. When the ACLU famously defended the rights of a Nazi group to march through a largely Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s — a case that’s set the parameters of First Amendment protections for protests for the last 50 years — it lost thousands of members and faced bitter questions from liberal American Jews about how it could defend the group that had killed their relatives (and in some cases tortured them) just a few decades before.

But these aren’t the same Nazis who marched through Skokie, and this isn’t the same progressive movement — and it isn’t the same ACLU, either. The backlash has already spurred other ACLU chapters to declare that they don’t believe free-speech protections apply to events like the one in Charlottesville, and led the ACLU’s national director, Anthony Romero, to declare the group will no longer defend the right to protest when the protesters want to carry guns.

The ACLU’s response didn’t resolve the underlying problem. It didn’t fully address a criticism put forward everywhere from Twitter to the New York Times, which published a column from former ACLU volunteer K-Sue Park on Thursday called “The ACLU Needs to Rethink Free Speech.”

Read the full VOX report here.