In early June, the New York Times ran a piece by Michael Powell entitled “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the ACLU Faces an Identity Crisis.” So what’s new?
The author claims that there is a schism in the American Civil Liberties Union whereby the old or “classic” civil libertarians stand up for free speech, no matter the content of that speech, while the younger or more “woke” activists want to see the organization focus on anti-racism action.
Both must be taught. You cannot have real anti-hate activism without freedom of expression. We had better teach our students how to fight for both.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of introducing and seeing the film “The Mighty Ira”. I got to interview Ira Glasser who was the executive director of the ACLU from 1978 to 2001, as well as the filmmaker, Nico Perrino, who is the Vice President of Communications for FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The film explores the life of Ira Glasser; the importance of Jackie Robinson to his fight for racial equality rights in the US; and his historic battle for the rights of Nazi Frank Collin and his group of nasties to march through the city of Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago that has a large Jewish population, many of whom, at the time, were Holocaust survivors.
What Ira told me about how the battle for freedom of expression worked and how he explains it to reluctant civil libertarians gave me hope.
The film follows Ira and also Skokie Holocaust survivor, Ben Stern. Mr. Stern is very clear that he would not sit still while Nazis march through his neighbourhood. He wanted them banned. It is not difficult for anyone to understand why anyone who had lived through a Nazi invasion of his home and the murder of his family would want to prevent such a thing happening again. But what would such a person need to ensure that his very important message about standing up against the Nazi horrors were heard and understood? Freedom of expression, of course.
The film follows the growing friendship between Ira and Ben – and culminates with Ben telling Ira that he is very proud of him. I believe that Ben came to truly understand the meaning of the fight for freedom of speech in Skokie.
As Ira Glasser told me, freedom of expression is a strategy. We need to teach the next generations how to stand up and fight for the right to express themselves publicly, no matter who they are or what they believe. We need to teach them how to counter the speech they hate with more and better speech because, whatever their views or values, they could be the next ones targeted.
Whatever you may think of any current government, love or hate it, you know it is likely to change. If you give your faith and trust to the current authorities to uphold your values and to determine whose speech is worthy and whose is beyond the pale, if they pass laws limiting speech, you have also given your trust to the next government, whatever you might think of it.
Unlike the U.S., Canada has anti-hate legislation. It is both vague and overly broad: Here is an excerpt from Canada’s Criminal Code:
319 (1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of an indictable offence…
(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of an indictable offence
Imagine I want to encourage a group of young people to listen to how much I hate a visibly identifiable group. I want to warn them that this group is dangerous, nasty, and contemptible. I will not incite violence directly, but nor will I specifically discourage it. Should I be charged with an offence?
Does it matter which group I want to hate? Are there really “fine people on both sides?” I don’t believe there are. But if I want to teach children about the dangers of joining a white-supremacist group, of becoming a member of Frank Collin’s Nazi skin-head youth (easily identified by their haircuts, tattoos, uniforms, flags, and other paraphernalia), should I be charged with an offence? The vague section of the Canadian Criminal Code means I could be. This charge is very unlikely in the US.
There should be no real schism in the ACLU or in other free speech organizations. Civil libertarians know that they will need to rely upon freedom of expression to fight the next infringement of any rights. It is the core right without which no other rights could exist.
Black Lives Matter, the Indigenous rights movement, people fighting ant-Semitism, people fighting Islamophobia, those working for the rights of the LGBTQ2S communities, as well as those who want to see laws against abortion, laws permitting discrimination against non-binary people in sports, antivaxxers, vegans, animal rights activists and pretty much anyone else can do nothing without freedom of expression. Publish your ideas, speak out on a street corner, buy advertising or post on social media sites – none of these can happen without freedom of expression.
Yes, everyone has a place where they want to see a line drawn. But drawn by whom? Since we cannot predict the future, there is no good argument for permitting one or another government to do the drawing. Let’s teach people how to strategize the USE of freedom of expression. We must actively stand up for our beliefs and values – and also stand up against the lies and the hatred that have always been and will always be out there.