When Words Can Kill: Should the ACLU Have Defended the 'Unite the Right' Riot?

In the aftermath of Saturday's bloody "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia — which included hundreds of white supremacists and which the American Civil Liberties Union publicly defended — some progressives are wondering whether the organization can still be considered a valuable ally in the fight for social justice.

Before the riot devolved into a violent conflict, the ACLU took to Twitter to state that the white supremacists who organized it had a right to mobilize.

“The First Amendment is a critical part of our democracy, and it protects vile, hateful, and ignorant speech,” read the post. “For this reason, the ACLU of Virginia defended the white supremacists' right to march.”

Later, after the world learned an anti-racist paralegal woman — Heather Hayer, 32 — had died when a "Unite the Right" demonstrator drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Dozens more activists were gravely injured from the attack and other assaults from white supremacists, the ACLU expanded on their opinion in a press release stating that they were “sickened and distraught by the vile acts committed in Charlottesville.”

“White supremacy is abhorrent. Bigotry, racism, and hatred in any form are indefensible. Violence of any kind combined with any of the above is terrorism,” read the statement. “We condemn it, as we do the reprehensible individuals and organizations responsible both directly and indirectly through their words and deeds. As of this writing, this includes our president who condones today’s inhumanities by default.”

But the ACLU’s failure to condemn the rally before it started and quickly devolved into a riot, followed by their largely symbolic stance after blood was shed, earned them harsh rebukes from progressives, especially those that equate hate speech with literal violence. Because the organization defended the event but not the hateful messages it promulgated, many saw the ACLU as having its cake and eating it too. Some critics went as far as to blame the political violence on the complacency of the ACLU, and call for them to be defunded and/or sued.

One member of the ACLU of Virginia's board, Waldo Jaquith, even resigned from his position in the wake of the ACLU’s decision.

“What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis,” wrote Jaquith on Twitter. “We need the ACLU. We need it so much. But we also need it to change, just a tiny bit: don’t defend Nazis to allow them to kill people.”

Here in Portland, during a rally held in solidarity for the victims of Charlottesville, an estimated 400 people gathered Sunday night to denounce white supremacy in Monument Square. When asked about their views on the ACLU, ralliers showed mixed opinions.

“I feel like the ACLU is just normalizing fascism,” said Susan Juliette, a young resident of Portland. “It’s not about free speech, it’s an incitement to violence. When you support it, you are complicit.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling was at the rally, remarking how on many occasions when the country has been reeling from displays of hate and violence, the city of Portland gathers rapidly to reflect its values of peace and tolerance. Despite recognizing the vile nature of the Unite the Right rally, Mayor Strimling felt that the ACLU had no choice but to defend it.

“Freedom of speech is very important. It’s served those fighting the powerful for a very long time, but we have to keep things nonviolent,” said Strimling. “When words can lead to violence you have to look carefully and prosecute if it’s a hate crime.”

Ella Smith, a social services worker in Portland, said that she supported the white supremacists’ right to march initially, but that they had clearly crossed a line into a hate crime.

“They do have a right to demonstrate but they don’t have a right to try and start a race war, which is what many have stated they want to do,” said Smith. “They showed up in full battle gear and surrounded a church. This was not just a gaggle of guys in Confederate flag shirts.”

Marc Harrington, a resident of Hallowell who drove to Portland to attend the rally, agreed, saying that “unfortunately the ACLU had to let them march,” because if they didn’t it would set a dangerous precedent that could dampen the free speech rights of people fighting for good causes.

“You have to let them march, but I don’t think they should have been marching with fire and guns. The whole thing was a symbol of violence. They knew what they were doing. If a whole bunch of black people decided to walk down the street with guns and torches, you’d have the National Guard on them instantly,” said Harrington, who is black.

Before determining whether or not the ACLU’s position on this issue is the right one, it’s important to acknowledge the important work the organization has done in its 97 years of existence. Since its inception, the ACLU has championed causes and individuals that were deeply unpopular publicly, for the benefit of the greater good. They’ve typically been the target of right-wing hatred for their defense of radical communists, transgender students, atheists, anti-war protestors, animal rights activists, pro-choice people, and in some cases, even Muslim extremists.

The ACLU exists to unequivocally defend the civil liberties of all, which in this case, means the First Amendment rights for white supremacists. Their mission is a bi-partisan one; they defend everybody’s rights as laid out in the American Constitution. To them, hate speech is worth defending because it’s legal.

Others at the rally had trouble reconciling this absolutist stance on free speech, with the very real blood that was spilled in upholding it. Should ideas rooted in the oppression of non-whites remain supported just for the sake of principle?

“It’s tough to understand how to respond,” said Ryan Dunfee, the community manager at AddUp, a branch of the Sierra Club. “I don’t think we’re even equipped to make that judgment call. But I also think if we don’t have systems in place to defend free speech we begin to erode the institutions that protect all of us. I think one thing we are in danger of losing in our current time is that need to defend these universal rights, and to apply them only selectively to those who agree with us. This only invites those who disagree with us to do the same. While neither I nor the ACLU condone the violence or the views of white supremacists, we will lose something fundamental if we can't agree on the ground rules for our democracy."

“As someone who has spent a career fightingracism, I deeply believe in the ACLU’s First Amendment work,” said Cecilia Wang, a civil rights attorney.

“It's amazing how frequently the ACLU has to repeat this basic tenet of civil liberty, and how invariably mad it makes people,” wrote Michael Tracy, a journalist with progressive news outlet The Young Turks on Twitter. 

But in the cases when this “basic tenet of civil liberty” tangibly leads to violence, as it did in Charlottesville, how is it still defensible? Do the American people trust their institutions enough to distinguish between hurtful free speech and violence-inciting hate speech? 

If yelling FIRE in a crowded theatre is illegal, then it's no surprise that some think that chanting white supremacist rallying cries to a mob of angry armed racists should be too.


Last modified onWednesday, 16 August 2017 10:00