Even the bad people have rights

If you’re going to encourage people to punch Nazis, at least give us a definition of “Nazis.”  We can all agree the guy walking around with a swastika flag is the genuine article, but many people on twitter hold to a definition much more…expansive than that.

Example: people are seriously making the argument that the American Civil Liberties Union is a pro-Nazi organization because of its free-speech activism:

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I don’t agree with Glenn Greenwald very often, but he is absolutely right to note that the same people who believe the United States government is racist and fascist should also have the power to decide what speech shall be allowed:

Let’s begin with one critical fact: the ACLU has always defended, and still does defend, the free speech rights of the most marginalized left-wing activists, from Communists and atheists, to hard-core war opponents and pacifists, and has taken up numerous free speech causes supported by many on the left and loathed by the right, including defending the rights of Muslim extremists and even NAMBLA. That’s true of any consistent civil liberties advocate: we defend the rights of those with views we hate in order to strengthen our defense of the rights of those who are most marginalizedand vulnerable in society.

The ACLU is primarily a legal organization. That means they defend people’s rights in court, under principles of law. One of the governing tools of courts is precedent: the application of prior rulings to current cases. If the ACLU allows the state to suppress the free speech rights of white nationalists or neo-Nazi groups – by refusing to defend such groups when the state tries to censor them or by allowing them to have inadequate representation – then the ACLU’s ability to defend the free speech rights of groups and people that you like will be severely compromised.

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Beyond that, the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

As I wrote in my comprehensive 2013 defense of free speech at the Guardian, this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly: “At any given point, any speech that subverts state authority can be deemed – legitimately so – to be hateful and even tending to incite violence.”

At best, this position is naive.  At worst, on the way-out-there fringes of the far left, it’s about someday seizing power and using it against the rest of us.

Like many American ideals, unfortunately, the right to freedom of expression is not equally protected in practice.  The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer, in a thoughtful twitter essay, notes that predominantly African-American demonstrators in Ferguson were allowed far less leeway than the white supremacists of Charlottesville.

That’s why the principled liberal position – that of the ACLU – is that freedom of expression is for everyone.  Those damning the ACLU as Nazi collaborators, whatever they may be, are not remotely liberal.

 

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