Let’s think about the First Amendment

Today the Times has two excellent articles on the First Amendment. Both of them provoke thought–always a good thing.

First, After Backing Alt-Right in Charlottesville, A.C.L.U. Wrestles With Its Role – The New York Times.

Two paragraphs from the article:

The A.C.L.U. has long maintained that defending the First Amendment rights of white supremacists does not only vindicate constitutional rights where they are under attack, but also protects speech rights for all groups. Social justice and equality, the group believes, are best served with more speech, on all sides, and by confronting hateful ideas head-on rather than suppressing them.

But some on the left argue that freedom of speech should not extend to hate speech. Under this view, defending the free speech rights of racists does not, in the long run, strengthen the civil liberties of minority groups.

Recently a good friend of mine said she no longer donates to the ACLU because they’ve become too right wing.

I disagree, and still donate. I’ve never seen the ACLU as a political force, left or not. I think what they do is precisely what their name says: they defend civil liberties; they defend the Constitution. And you can’t defend only the free speech and peaceful assembly rights of groups you like. Either there is universal free speech and peaceful assembly or there isn’t.

The ACLU are pro bono defense lawyers, and in our current horror state, they are the lead defense lawyers for our democracy.

For many years I worked for defense lawyers, and quickly developed an open empathy for them, for their complex role in our legal system, for what I saw as a defense soul. Apparently my concept of defense law is far more nuanced than the view many people who rebuke the ACLU seem to hold.

Bluntly, defense lawyers defend not the client but the Constitution. They are greatly courageous: prejudice against their clients gets flung at them, as well. They get screamed at–“How dare you represent that animal?”–and threatened physically.

Once, while I was manning the law office fort during a really heated trial–and taking numerous ugly phone calls–a padded envelope with suspicious lumps arrived in the mail. With a certain degree of pragmatic black humor, I called 911. I didn’t think it’d be anything but I wasn’t going to take any chances. (The bomb squad arrived with a dog, the entire office was evacuated, it turned out to be a photograph of the lawyer I worked for, with a special marker pen, and a request that he signed the photo and send it back in the self-addressed stamped envelope.)

Prosecutors get to pose as the men in the white hats. They are not. The Constitution would not be muscular if there were no lawyers to defend it with muscle.

So I urge those ACLU lawyers who are quitting the organization to reconsider what I might think of as an act of cowardice, if I want to be unkind. If you’re going to be a defense lawyer, you’d better have guts. Or you might as well join a law firm and defend corporations.

Here are a few more paragraphs from the article:

Since Charlottesville, the A.C.L.U. has clearly wrestled with what to do when the next case comes along. It indicated on Thursday that, in evaluating whether to take free-speech cases involving public gatherings, the group would consider the potential for violence at the event and whether protesters were going to be carrying firearms. But Ms. Sullivan, the spokeswoman, said that was not a new policy; rather, it reflected existing practices.

“We make decisions on whom we’ll represent and in what context on a case-by-case basis,” the A.C.L.U. said in a statement on Thursday. “The horrible events in Charlottesville last weekend will certainly inform those decisions going forward.”

Mr. Romero, the A.C.L.U.’s executive director, said in an interview this week that the group would remain committed to its free speech advocacy. “This is not a new juncture for the A.C.L.U.,” he said. “We have a longstanding history of defending the rights of groups we detest and with whom we fundamentally disagree.”

A note: One of the ACLU’s first clients was John Scopes.

I’m sticking with the ACLU.

Then Jim Rutenberg, the Times media commentator, wrote this thoughtful discussion:

Source: Where Is the Line? Charlottesville Forces Media and Tech Companies to Decide – The New York Times

Which begins:

It took the death of a young woman at the hands of one of the neo-Nazis she was protesting to force the ever-expanding media universe to face a question it has been evading for years: Where’s the line?

Google, Twitter and the web hosting company GoDaddy appeared to find it this week when they shut down The Daily Stormer, an American Nazi “publication,” after it mocked the peace activist Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday at a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va. But The Daily Stormer had been comfortably operating in the established online matrix since it was founded in 2013.

A lot to consider about the First Amendment.

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