ACLU on the Defensive

Last weekend’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has put the American Civil Liberties Union on the defensive for representing the white supremacists and generated furious debate over First Amendment speech rights.The ACLU has been here before. In a statement posted Tuesday night, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero insisted hateful, bigoted speech must be aired.

“Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground,” Romero wrote. “Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it.”

Saturday’s carnage, and President Donald Trump’s conflicted responses, have further inflamed America’s racial tensions and show no sign of receding from public debate. The ACLU is under scrutiny now too as it has been many times before when interests of free speech, safety and societal norms collide. Stacy Sullivan, ACLU associate director of strategic communications, said Wednesday that Romero was trying to answer outside critics as well as ACLU board members, donors and staff working for racial justice and concerned about the representation of white supremacists.

In his statement, Romero referred to the ACLU’s history of representing Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other detestable groups through the years and tacitly acknowledged the current dissent within ACLU ranks over its litigation ensuring that demonstrators could gather last Saturday in a downtown Charlottesville park.