Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis


That may be an overstatement. Mr. Wizner, who runs the A.C.L.U.’s free speech project, has represented the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and rattled off important cases his lawyers handled. But FIRE, he acknowledged, has taken a strong lead on campuses, where so many consequential battles are fought.

“FIRE does not have the same tensions,” Mr. Wizner said. “At the A.C.L.U., free speech is one of 12 or 15 different values.”

Traditionally, the A.C.L.U.’s state affiliates monitor and argue free speech cases, but in recent years some shied from such fights. Here are a few examples:

In 2015, University of Missouri students protested racism and established an encampment in a campus quad. When a student journalist tried to take photos and talk to protesters, students and a journalism professor physically blocked the reporter from doing so. The A.C.L.U. of Missouri applauded the “courageous” leadership of student activists and faculty members, and two national A.C.L.U. officials wrote columns about the protests. They did not mention First Amendment rights.

Four years later at the University of Connecticut, two white students walking home late at night loudly repeated a racial slur. In the ensuing uproar, the university police arrested and charged the students with ridicule on account of race.

The A.C.L.U. of Connecticut demanded that the university hire 10 Black faculty and staff members and require a freshman course on ending racism on campus. It made no mention of the arrests, other than to opine that the police force is “an inherently white supremacist institution.”

Two days later, Mr. Cole issued a corrective: The students’ conduct “is not criminal,” he stated. “The First Amendment protects even offensive and hateful speech.”

Even the New York Civil Liberties Union, traditionally an independent-minded A.C.L.U. affiliate that has produced several national executive directors and stood at the forefront in defending free speech cases, did not want to talk about those issues. A spokeswoman for its executive director, Donna Lieberman, said, “We don’t feel we’ll have anything to add.”



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