Commentary

ACLU Silence Enables Campus Anti-free Speech Movement

The Radio Television Digital News Association recently presented its new First Amendment Defenders Award to Tim Tai, a student journalist who was hired by ESPN to cover the anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri.

“Tai was confronted by University students, faculty and staff, threatening him with violence if he did not abandon his efforts,” the award citation reads. “Instead, he stood his ground and patiently asserted his First Amendment Rights to stand in a public place and report on the events around him.”

One would hope that the ACLU of Missouri issued a statement of support for Tim Tai at the time the video of this highly publicized event went viral on the Internet. But the ACLU of Missouri didn’t even acknowledge that the incident occurred. Instead, they issued a statement that “the ACLU of Missouri honors the University of Missouri students and faculty who displayed courageous and creative leadership …”

The next day, when MU’s student body vice president suggested on national television that the exercise of First Amendment rights creates a hostile and unsafe learning environment, the ACLU of Missouri remained silent. Two days later, when a Christian street preacher was physically assaulted by anti-racism protesters while speaking inside MU’s designated “Free Speech Circle,” the ACLU of Missouri remained silent.

The same pattern repeated itself in Connecticut during the same month. When Yale University student protesters interrupted a free speech symposium on campus, and spat on attendees trying to leave the venue, the ACLU of Connecticut remained silent. When Yale instructor Erika Christakis urged tolerance of offensive viewpoints, and was verbally abused and harassed until she resigned her teaching position, the ACLU of Connecticut remained silent.

The National and local ACLU chapters haven’t done the student protesters any favors by withholding criticism of their anti-free speech behavior. In the vacuum created by such deafening silence, the rudderless ACLU chapter at Wesleyan University signed on to a list of student demands that included “an anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions, perpetrated by faculty and staff.” The demands supported by the Wesleyan ACLU chapter also called for the “revision of … professor evaluations to include a section dedicated for reporting … microaggressions … perpetrated by instructors.”

Substitute the words “un-American activities” for “microaggressions,” and you have a demand reminiscent of the anti-communist witch hunts that ravaged American universities during the 1940s and ’50s. The ACLU was the leading advocacy organization for academic freedom during the McCarthy era. It shouldn’t let its guard down now.

The national ACLU has issued only two public statements that relate to the recent nationwide student anti-racism protests: a blog entry by Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, and an op-ed in Time magazine by ACLU President Susan Herman.

Herman noted in her op-ed that ACLU founder Roger Baldwin was once arrested for reading the First Amendment aloud at an anti-war protest. The anecdote would have been more powerful had she acknowledged the irony that a staple demand of student protesters has been the punishment of other students who advocate for free speech in response to the protesters’ censorious demands. For example, if students at Amherst College get their way, anyone who chose to emulate Baldwin’s example would be subject not only to academic discipline, but to mandatory cultural sensitivity training as well.

Both Herman’s op-ed and Parker’s blog entry cloak their affirmation of the First Amendment in an unequivocal defense of the student protesters , without offering a single criticism of their anti-free speech actions or demands for censorship. Herman and Parker each offer a rhetorical shrug to “private parties” whose conduct and demands have violated freedom of expression both in principle and in practice. Their pointed references to private actors not being subject to the First Amendment is, at its heart, an abandonment of the ACLU’s traditional core value that freedom of expression be encouraged and protected wherever it is threatened.

So, when Susan Herman claims in her op-ed that the ACLU “is a multi-issue organization” — in an oblique defense of charges that free speech is a lesser priority in the ACLU’s pantheon of advocacy issues — what she is really saying, with a wink and a nod, is that for the ACLU all issues are equal, but some issues are more equal than others.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.