Why the conflicted ACLU statement about armed protesters is ineffective

Photo: CBS

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) exists to defend people’s constitutional rights. Its California chapters (later backed up by the national organization) recently backed off its defense of alt-right protesters. It’s a nuanced stance, and a confusing statement didn’t help.

People think of the ACLU as a highly liberal organization. It has recently defended imprisoned illegal immigrants and opposed police use of military weapons. But in the past, the ACLU also defended the free speech of neo-Nazis and racists because, as it says in a blog post, “We simply never want government to be in a position to favor or disfavor particular viewpoints.”

The California ACLU is conflicted about armed white supremacists. So is its statement.

So, is the ACLU in favor of allowing white supremacists to speak or against them? Here’s the statement from the California chapters (I’ve added bold for the weasel words):

ACLU of California Statement: White Supremacist Violence is Not Free Speech

Our country’s greatest strengths are the diversity of its people and the principles of equal dignity and inclusion that unite us all. There are troubling events planned in our state in the coming weeks. This is an incredibly painful and difficult time for millions of Californians. For those who are wondering where we stand – the ACLU of California fully supports the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to peacefully assemble. We review each request for help on a case-by-case basis, but take the clear position that the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence. If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.

I think the ACLU has always been uncomfortable defending the indefensible. But the first half of this statement — everything from “Our country’s greatest strengths” through “where we stand” — is basically a public statement of guilt and confusion. In particular:

  • The ACLU’s need to defend hateful speech exists because the “principles of equal dignity and inclusion” do not “unite us all.”
  • All of the ACLU’s free speech actions exist around “troubling events.” If there is no trouble, there is no need for the ACLU.
  • “This is an incredibly painful and difficult time” for Californians, but the reason the ACLU includes this is the statement is that it’s difficult and painful time for the ACLU.

The ACLU does not defend speech that incites violence. But now it has taken the position that armed protesters “with the intent to harm people” can’t get a defense. Who decides whether the protesters have that intent?

Embedded in this statement is the ACLU’s actual position. When we strip away the extra verbiage and hand-wringing, here’s my translation:

The ACLU takes the clear position that the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence. We support the rights of people — even racists — to express their opinions publicly. But we will not defend anyone conducting armed demonstrations and inciting violence.

This is a defensible position, and it’s a lot easier to understand without all the throat-clearing.

The national ACLU statement is clearer

Here’s what the national ACLU told the Washington Post:

We agree with every word in the statement from our colleagues in California. The First Amendment absolutely does not protect white supremacists seeking to incite or engage in violence. We condemn the views of white supremacists, and fight against them every day. At the same time, we believe that even odious hate speech, with which we vehemently disagree, garners the protection of the First Amendment when expressed non-violently. We make decisions on whom we’ll represent and in what context on a case-by-case basis. The horrible events in Charlottesville last weekend will certainly inform those decisions going forward.

Strip off the first sentence and the last and you have the ACLU’s clear, consistent position.

How to write when you’re conflicted

When you’re not sure where you stand, it’s easy to write a “on the one hand, on the other hand” statement.

That’s a mistake. No one cares about your anguish. They only care about your decision.

You’ll get praised or blamed for that decision equally whether you agonized over it or not. Here how to write about it:

  • Make a decision, even if it’s difficult.
  • Once you’ve made the decision, gather all the arguments and supporting points.
  • Write about the decision and the reasons you made it.
  • Write about the arguments for the other side and how you weighed them and eventually decided they weren’t sufficient.

You should sound clear-headed and resolute, even if you’re not. Clarity is more important — and effective — than attempts to get sympathy for your equivocation.

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