The New York Times (#WHOA) probes ACLU's move away from First Amendment liberalism

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I don’t know about you, but The New York Times was the last place that I expected to see a long news feature about disturbing trends at the American Civil Liberties Union away from its proud history of First Amendment liberalism.

I am sure that some ACLU insiders must have felt the same way, especially in light of recent headlines about the rising power of a generation of woke journalists at the Times. The pot calling the kettle black?

But there was no way around the contents of that dramatic double-decker headline the other day:

Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis

An organization that has defended the First Amendment rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is split by an internal debate over whether supporting progressive causes is more important.

As the headline states, the emphasis in this report is about free speech. Maybe it was too much to ask Times editors to see the same illiberal trend developing in ACLU work defending the First Amendment clause protecting religious freedom, without “scare quotes.”

But we will take what we get because of the influence that the Times has in other newsrooms and even in some influential corners of elite academia.

The story opens with an event celebrating the career of lawyer David Goldberger, who played a key role in the famous 1978 case when the ACLU defended the free speech rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., the home of many Holocaust survivors. Read this long passage carefully:

Mr. Goldberger, now 79, adored the A.C.L.U. But at his celebratory luncheon in 2017, he listened to one speaker after another and felt a growing unease.

A law professor argued that the free speech rights of the far right were not worthy of defense by the A.C.L.U. and that Black people experienced offensive speech far more viscerally than white allies. In the hallway outside, an A.C.L.U. official argued it was perfectly legitimate for his lawyers to decline to defend hate speech.

Mr. Goldberger, a Jew who defended the free speech of those whose views he found repugnant, felt profoundly discouraged.

“I got the sense it was more important for A.C.L.U. staff to identify with clients and progressive causes than to stand on principle,” he said in a recent interview. “Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”

I apologize for quoting the following GetReligion passage once again, but it is highly relevant in this case. It offers a trio of questions that I think journalists need to think about whenever they use “liberal” as a political and cultural label.

This is from a 2015 post , which ran under a headline stating, “Short test for journalists: Label the cultural point of view in this commentary.” Sadly, it’s appropriate to note that this was pre-Donald Trump.

… There is this puzzle that I have mentioned before. What do you call people who are weak in their defense of free speech, weak in their defense of freedom of association and weak in their defense of religious liberty (in other words, basic First Amendment rights)?

The answer: I don’t know, but it would be totally inaccurate — considering the history of American political thought — to call these people “liberals.”

Like I said, the Times piece avoids questions about religious liberty. However, it’s quite easy to connect the dots — while also note the ways in which Trump-era conflicts inside the ACLU resemble those at the great Gray Lady. It would be interesting to read a commentary on this Times piece by someone like Bari Weiss or Liz Spayd.

The key is that blue-zip-code anger during the Trump years fueled waves of donations to the ACLU (sort of like the surge in Times online subscriptions) and the hiring of plenty of new legal talent, with many of these new lawyers specializing in controversies linked to race, LGBTQ issues, hate speech and other progressive causes.

First Amendment projects moved to the back burner. Why is that? Here’s another passage from the Times piece:

Some A.C.L.U. lawyers and staff members argue that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the press — as well as freedom of religion, assembly and petitioning the government — is more often a tool of the powerful than the oppressed.

“First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege,” said Dennis Parker, who directed the organization’s Racial Justice Program until he left in late 2018.

To which David Cole, the national legal director of the A.C.L.U., rejoined in an interview: “Everything that Black Lives Matter does is possible because of the First Amendment.”

Clearly, this is a clash between the values of young progressives and old liberals. Notice that in this final chunk of the Times piece, one defender of the old ACLU asks to remain anonymous, perhaps fearing that he or she will be accused of hate speech or voicing commitments that might favor cultural conservatives.

The younger ACLU cohort:

… placed less value on free speech, making it uncomfortable for them to express views internally that diverged from progressive orthodoxy.

“A dogmatism descends sometimes” inside the A.C.L.U., noted Alejandro Agustin Ortiz, a lawyer with the racial justice project. “You hesitate before you question a belief that is ascendant among your peer group.”

Some argued for carefully vetting hires. “I never do a job interview without raising Skokie/Charlottesville and asking if they are comfortable with that history,” said a lawyer who asked not to be named because of the fear of inflaming colleagues. “Not many colleagues agree. It’s about the cause.”

So I will ask my question again, since this is a crucial issue in journalism these days: “What do you call people who are weak in their defense of free speech, weak in their defense of freedom of association and weak in their defense of religious liberty?” What is the accurate term these days?

FIRST IMAGE: Illustration posted at

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