On the cusp of the Free Speech Union’s launch here’s a really timely interview by Tom Slater at Spiked with Ira Glasser:
Glasser, 82, is one of the most important civil-liberties advocates of the past 50 years. He was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, helping to turn it into a powerhouse.
The ACLU in Glasser’s era was really serious about free speech. So serious, in fact, that they famously defended the right of Nazis to march through a neighbourhood called Skokie.
This was despite the ACLU being full of leftists and anti-racists. Glasser, for instance, is described by Spiked as ‘a lifelong campaigner for racial justice’.
However, the ACLU has, you won’t be surprised to hear, gone woke these days, and Glasser, who has long since retired, claims that the modern ACLU no longer defends free speech like it used to.
He is, of course, right. Why has the ACLU abandoned its core mission? In my view it’s because the ACLU was really all about defending the left. The right was still seen as the dominant cultural force, and the left really worried about the right using governmental powers to crack down on the left one day. So they wanted free speech to remain out of the hands of the government, which meant defending it, at all costs, against government and anyone else who threatened it:
Glasser tells me about a time he was on TV, defending the ACLU’s defence of Ku Klux Klan members’ First Amendment rights. He was sat alongside Hosea Williams, a black civil-rights leader and lieutenant of Martin Luther King.
The moderator turned to Williams, expecting a counterpoint. ‘And Williams says, on national television, that actually he agrees with me’, recounts Glasser, ‘because if we allow the state of Georgia to interfere with the free-speech rights of the Klan in Atlanta on Monday, they will use that power to interfere with my organising blacks to vote in Fulton County, north of Atlanta, everyday thereafter’.
But now that the left is culturally dominant the leftists themselves are no longer so keen to promote free speech when, in their view, all it does is give their enemies a voice. They’re no longer in danger of having government turned against them, they think, so they’re no longer worried about government power, and are happy to see it get used to suppress the right.
In fact, Glasser himself only supports free speech because he still worries that the likes of Donald Trump will be able to use the governmental suppression of free speech against the left:
The only important question in free-speech cases is: who gets to decide? And the answer for oppressed people is: not you. Never you. Never me. Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, they’re the ones who most often have political power. Why would you want to give them the power to decide who should speak?
Notice that he doesn’t name-check any leftists in there.
So it’s kind of no wonder that the ACLU lost interest in free speech. When you’re that politicised it’s not surprising that principles like free speech will end up coming second to politics. Glasser is still sensible enough to understand why this could turn out badly, The new ACLU bosses differ from him only in that they think this is nothing to worry about now that the left controls the culture. In essence, the ACLU have no more interest in free speech than most other leftists in history have done once they’ve gotten into power.