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Editorial

Free speech: It's the ACLU's deal

For Americans liberal and conservative, the organization continues to support their right to speak.

November 23, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union is vilified by conservatives as a left-wing lobby disguised as an advocate for free speech for all. And certainly it's true that many supporters of the organization are liberal in their political views. But to its credit, the ACLU often puts its commitment to free expression above those opinions. The latest example is its support for a student group at the University of Nevada, Reno, that invited Jim Gilchrist, an extreme opponent of illegal immigration, to take part in a panel discussion.

If some students and faculty had had their way, Gilchrist -- a founder of the Minuteman Project, which encourages civilians to patrol the border to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country -- would have been disinvited. "We're hoping there is a way we can prevent his visit to our community," one professor told the Reno Gazette-Journal. To which the Nevada ACLU responded: "Canceling Mr. Gilchrist's appearance would be tantamount to allowing a segment of the university community to exercise a 'heckler's veto' concerning controversial speakers." The university administration and faculty senate took the same position, and on Thursday, Gilchrist came and debated immigrant-rights advocate Miguel Acosta.

If the ACLU were just another liberal organization, it wouldn't have supported Gilchrist's right to speak. Nor would it have argued, as it did in 2004, that law enforcement officers violated Rush Limbaugh's privacy rights by seizing his medical records. Another departure from liberal orthodoxy is the ACLU's opposition to the McCain-Feingold law's restrictions on political broadcasts by unions and corporations. It argues that the law "permits the suppression of core political speech." The most famous case in which the ACLU alienated some of its supporters -- and others -- was its defense in 1977 of the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a village with a large Jewish population.

Obviously the ACLU embraces political positions that aren't accepted by every supporter of its overarching philosophy. Its support for Roe vs. Wade, for example, is rejected by opponents of abortion who nevertheless would characterize themselves as civil libertarians. Other critics who share the ACLU's belief in the separation of church and state believe the organization has gone too far by arguing that the 1st Amendment is violated by Christmas creches on public property or the recitation in schools of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Whatever one thinks of these or other positions taken by the ACLU, the notion that it would protect only speech it agrees with is false. Ask Jim Gilchrist.

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