In 1977, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went to court to defend the rights of American neo-Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago home to many Holocaust survivors. The group defended the Nazis’ right to demonstrate and won the case on First Amendment grounds, but 30,000 members quit the organization in protest.
The Skokie case cemented the image of the ACLU as a principled defender of free speech. The following year, Ira Glasser was elevated from head of the New York state chapter to the national organization’s executive director, a position he would hold for the next 23 years. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, Mighty Ira, that celebrates his time leading the charge against government regulation of content on the internet, hate speech laws, speech codes on college campuses, and more.
Retired since 2001, Glasser says he’s worried about the future of both free expression and the organizations that defend it. In 2018, a leaked ACLU memo offered guidelines for case selection that retreated from the group’s decadeslong content-neutral stance, citing as a reason to decline a case “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.” Glasser fears that, by becoming more political and less absolutist when it comes to defending speech, the ACLU might be shrugging off its hard-won legacy.