Without ACLU, we'd be in trouble

Here's something you don't read very often in these pages: Thank God for the ACLU.

I mean it, too. The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the nation's most valuable organizations. I cringe to think where we'd be without it.

The ACLU's mission is about as basic as it gets: defending the Bill of Rights. You'd think we wouldn't need an organization to do that, since it's the essence of being an American to believe in freedom, equal protection, due process and privacy.

But it turns out the ACLU is incredibly busy. Not a day goes by that someone across this great land isn't violating someone else's constitutional rights.

And yet the ACLU isn't popular in some circles. All it's trying to do is uphold the founding principles of the nation, yet it is often accused of being an enemy of all that's right and good about these United States.

Interestingly, the ACLU takes abuse from all sides. Conservatives and liberals alike get riled up about the ACLU's insistence on observance of the Bill of Rights. From the ACLU's perspective, political ideology isn't the issue. Its loyalty is to the Constitution, not the Republicans or Democrats.

Here in Las Vegas, the ACLU has an office that keeps tabs on those who either do not understand or do not appreciate the hard work of the Founding Fathers. It's a small office but it sees plenty of action.

Just last week, the local ACLU found itself embroiled in two free speech controversies. First, there was the Spring Valley High School student, Devon Smith, who was kicked out of class for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

It's been widely understood since the early 1940s that public schools cannot require students to recite the Pledge. The First Amendment protects not only a person's right to speak but also a person's right not to speak.

But apparently Clark County School District officials missed or disregarded subsequent court rulings in the 1970s that said students also don't have to stand during the Pledge. As a result, newly hired teachers have been instructed to require students to stand no matter what their beliefs.

This is a clear violation, yet Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, said that after news reports about the Devon Smith case, he received a number of vitriolic phone calls.

"I actually am a guy who respects people who have passionate, heartfelt convictions," Peck said. "And so when people become angry in a respectful way about other people who don't stand for the Pledge, that's OK in my mind. What's not OK is to do that disrespectfully and hatefully."

One caller accused Peck and his ACLU buddies of urinating on the flag and not loving America.

"I was always under the impression that the recitation of the Pledge was meant to celebrate what was good and decent about America," Peck said. "And of course what is good and decent about America, in my view, is that America aspires to be and is to a significant extent the land of the free. And so there's more than a little irony in the fact that there are people who are screaming disrespectfully and hatefully about someone who has chosen to enjoy that freedom, as a matter of personal conscience to not rise and recite the Pledge."

On another front, the ACLU has taken up the cause of a woman who was picketing on the sidewalk in front of a jewelry store. She wasn't happy with the service she received from the store and decided to express her opinion in a public forum.

But the woman, Diana Bickel, ended up getting arrested and sentenced to two days in jail. District Judge Susan Johnson ruled that Bickel did not have the right to picket in front of the store because the sidewalk is "private property."

Johnson conveniently ignored several Las Vegas-specific court rulings that directly contradict her position, including high-profile cases involving the Venetian Hotel (1999) and the Fremont Street Experience (2003).

I can all but guarantee that when this case goes to federal court, Johnson's ruling will be reversed -- and rightly so.

The good news is that freedom of speech almost always triumphs. People and institutions are constantly trying to silence dissenting or unpopular views, but in the end they almost always fail.

But upholding the integrity of the Bill of Rights requires eternal vigilance

And that's why we should be thankful for the ACLU. Without its commitment to defending the Founding Fathers' single greatest idea, I would worry that the forces of thought control and suppression might gain the upper hand and grind away at what makes America great.

If it isn't yet obvious, the main point of the First Amendment's free speech guarantee is this: It protects everybody, and especially those with whom a majority of people disagree.

Most of the iconic Western philosophers and writers at some point in their lives crafted a pithy quote about freedom of speech, but one of the best is of a more recent vintage: "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." That was Noam Chomsky.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.