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EDITORIAL: The ACLU gets weak-kneed on the First Amendment

The American Civil Liberties Union — at least the national chapter — has for decades been somewhat selective in its embrace of the Bill of Rights.

The Second Amendment? Not big fans. The Fifth Amendment’s takings clause and government eminent domain abuse? Largely silent. The Ninth and 10th Amendments? They’ll get back to you on those.

But while the organization’s agenda has long featured a liberal tilt, the group could always be counted on to mount a spirited defense of the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Until now.

“Faced with an angry backlash for defending white supremacists’ right to march in Charlottesville,” The Associated Press reported this week, “the American Civil Liberties Union is confronting a feeling among some of its members that was once considered heresy: Maybe some speech isn’t worth defending.”

This is disappointing, but not surprising. Many members of the in-your-face progressive movement have made clear their disdain for the First Amendment, obliviously criticizing it as a tool of oppression. Hardly a week goes by that The New York Times or The Washington Post doesn’t feature an angry commentary urging the country to “rethink” the principles of free-wheeling debate and expression. Some academics now argue that “hate” speech — which in current leftist lexicon means anything disagreeable — is akin to physical violence because it can make people feel bad, triggering physical symptoms.

Make no mistake, the authoritarians are at the gate — all dressed up, ironically, in the cloak of tolerance.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as members of the Trump resistance flocked to join the ACLU, the group’s commitment to free speech has become, shall we say, tested. Some liberal agitators accused the organization of having blood on its hands after the Virginia confrontation. One ACLU leader quit, tweeting, “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different.”

The internal turmoil led to a three-hour national staff meeting. The result, the AP reports: “An announcement that the ACLU will no longer stand with hate groups seeking to march with weapons.” In other words, a group that touts itself as having worked for a century to “preserve the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution,” won’t defend the First Amendment rights of those who exercise their Second Amendment rights. Orwell, anyone?

The ACLU is a private organization that is free to set its own policies. But if its national leaders prefer to sacrifice the group’s credibility by defenestrating long-standing First Amendment principles in a dangerous and shortsighted effort to appease the progressive totalitarians, they might as well just close the doors and disband.

“The Inquisition burned heretics because it saw in their speech such a spiritual threat; surely it was an act of kindness to protect the innocent from deadly lies?” author Adam Kirsch wrote in The New York Times this week, “It took the Western world many generations of religious wars and persecutions before liberal thinkers, in the 17th and 18th centuries, began to challenge this imperious logic.”

But that logic is back and quickly gaining traction on the left. Will the ACLU have the guts to reject it?

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