The American Civil Liberties Union has faced backlash following their decision to take the case of the white nationalists following their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The A.C.L.U. bears the role of defending the civil liberties outlined in the Constitution. With this role comes the need to defend people or groups whose beliefs often go against those of A.C.L.U. members and the beliefs of the nation. In the case of Charlottesville, the A.C.L.U intervened before the rally began, defending the nationalist group’s right to protest. This decision is a source of the backlash the organization now faces, for even the Governor of Virginia stated that the involvement of the A.C.L.U. contributed to the poor decision to hold the rally downtown, which in turn lead to the violence. The A.C.L.U has faced other setbacks in the wake of Charlottesville, with members leaving the organization for fear of “being a fig leaf for the Nazis” as stated by Waldo Jaquith, a member of the A.C.L.U. of Virginia board who left his position.
Jaquith’s decision reflects the question the A.C.L.U and the nation faces. Is defending the rights of hate groups to espouse their beliefs encouraging them to go public with their beliefs? Another white nationalist rally was scheduled to take place in Texas this September, but was cancelled due to safety concerns. The rally organizer suggested to the Texas Tribune that he may involve the A.C.L.U. This instance suggests that white nationalists may consider the organization to be a protector in the event they wish to hold a rally. While the A.C.L.U has a duty to protect a nationalist’s right to speak, the assurance of this defense could embolden these groups to hold more rallies. The A.C.L.U is aware of this possibility, and in a statement on August 17, it assured that the organization judges cases on an individual basis, and takes the potential for violence into account. The A.C.L.U argues that defending the First Amendment rights of white nationalists is not only just, but necessary for the protection of civil liberties for all. This belief set has been challenged by some leftist groups, who argue that the defense of hate speech is counterproductive to the interests of minority groups, and gives racists a platform to espouse their hate.
There is no denying that words of the white nationalists at Charlottesville were hate speech, but this fact does not deny them the protection of the A.C.L.U. There is no clause that prohibits hate speech in the First Amendment. What is prohibited in the First Amendment is unlawful assembly. This is defined as “when three or more people meet with the intention of carrying out an unlawful act to deliberately disturb the peace.” Therefore, unless a rally meets with the intention of being disruptive, their words are protected by the Constitution. Any hateful speech is considered to just be words, and a rally is free to say them if it is not expressly violent. The A.C.LU. has addressed the concerns that allowing rallies to take place could intrinsically lead to violence. The executive director reminded that it is up to local authorities to prevent violence should it arise, and the role of the A.C.L.U. ends when they have determined if a group has the right to say what they want to say. It is unfair to blame the A.C.L.U. for what may arise as a result of allowing far right groups a space to speak, for they also defend the right of counter protesters to oppose them. A large component of the violence that arises during rallies is the presence of two morally opposed groups in a small space. Therefore, it is up to the local police and authorities to ensure that measures are taken to protect both sides’ rights in a safe manner. To say that hate speech should not be protected is a violation of the Constitution, and regardless of the backlash it may face, the A.C.L.U. must continue to take cases like those in Charlottesville.