Within the ACLU, a debate on whose speech should be defended

You might not think a rapist, or an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist journalist, Nazis, or a teenager who burns a cross on the lawn of an African American family on St. Paul’s East side is worth defending, but they’re the people whose court cases have provided some of the backbone that makes the U.S. Constitution something more than paper.

Anybody can support the rights of people we like. But it takes a true American patriot to recognize that the rights granted by the Constitution should be argued and defended on behalf of those we despise, too.

So take with a grain of salt the protestations against the American Civil Liberties Union for its decision to defend Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocateur with few redeeming qualities, who is a party to a complaint against the Washington public transit system’s ban on subway ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” or “intended to influence public policy.”

“He brands feminism a cancer,” the ACLU writes on its blog. “He believes that transgender individuals have psychological problems, and he has compared Black Lives Matter activists to the KKK. The ACLU condemns many of the values he espouses (and he, of course, condemns many of the values the ACLU espouses).”

But if his ad (for a book) are ordered taken down, everyone’s can be taken down, the ACLU notes.

If that sounds like a ban on speech, it’s because it is a ban on speech, the group says.

But even people within the ACLU think there’s a line that must not be crossed.

On Twitter, ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio suggests extending a right to Yiannopoulos crosses it.

All of the reasons Strangio cites are all the reasons that could have — and were — cited against a rapist; an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist journalist; a teenager who lit a cross afire on the lawn of the only African American family living on Dayton’s Bluff; and the Nazis who marched in Skokie.

The ACLU, however, had the perfect response to Strangio and the people who disagreed with him:

“Some people may say that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ offensive speech sets him apart and doesn’t deserve to be defended,” James Esseks, the director of the ACLU’s HIV and LGBT project, writes in a separate blog post. “But the sad reality is that many people think that speech about sexuality, gender identity, or abortion is over the line as well. They’ll say that abortion is murder, civil rights advocates are criminals, or LGBT advocates are trying to recruit children into deviant and perverse lifestyles. If First Amendment protections are eroded at any level, it’s not hard to imagine the government successfully pushing one or more of those arguments in court.”