Has the ACLU lost its way? This appears to be a perennial question. In 1994, then-ACLU President Nadine Strossen wrote a 17-page article with 54 footnotes, responding to the charge that the organization “is abandoning its traditional commitment to free speech and other classic civil liberties and is becoming a ‘trendy’ liberal organization primarily concerned with equality and civil rights.” Sixteen years before that, in 1978, J. Anthony Lukas wrote a feature for The New York Times Magazine titled “The ACLU Against Itself,” recounting the controversy over whether the group should have represented a group of Nazis who sought to march in Skokie, Illinois. The question is not new.
But the answer remains the same. The ACLU is committed to the principle of free speech today, just as it was in the 1990s, 1970s, and long before that. And we are specifically committed to the proposition that the First Amendment’s guarantees (like those of the rest of the Constitution) apply to all, not just to those with whom we agree. At the same time, the ACLU also remains devoted to defending other fundamental civil rights and civil liberties, including equal protection of the law — as we always have been. Addressing the tensions that sometimes arise between these commitments is not easy. But we seek to do so, today as always, not by abandoning any of our core commitments, but by acknowledging and confronting the conflicts in as forthright, inclusive, and principled a way as we can.
Some have charged that in doing so we have abandoned our fidelity to the First Amendment in the years since our representation of a white supremacist protester in Charlottesville. In that case, we challenged the revocation of his permit to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The protest turned violent, the police failed to intervene, and ultimately one of the alt-right adherents, Alex Field, rammed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring 19 others. The Charlottesville tragedy and the ACLU’s role in defending the protesters’ permit led to considerable controversy, inside and outside the ACLU.