New York Times, Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis:
An organization that has defended the First Amendment rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is split by an internal debate over whether supporting progressive causes is more important.
It was supposed to be the celebration of a grand career, as the American Civil Liberties Union presented a prestigious award to the longtime lawyer David Goldberger. He had argued one of its most famous cases, defending the free speech rights of Nazis in the 1970s to march in Skokie, Ill., home to many Holocaust survivors.
Mr. Goldberger, now 79, adored the A.C.L.U. But at his celebratory luncheon in 2017, he listened to one speaker after another and felt a growing unease.
A law professor argued that the free speech rights of the far right were not worthy of defense by the A.C.L.U. and that Black people experienced offensive speech far more viscerally than white allies. In the hallway outside, an A.C.L.U. official argued it was perfectly legitimate for his lawyers to decline to defend hate speech.
Mr. Goldberger, a Jew who defended the free speech of those whose views he found repugnant, felt profoundly discouraged.
“I got the sense it was more important for A.C.L.U. staff to identify with clients and progressive causes than to stand on principle,” he said in a recent interview. “Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”
The A.C.L.U., America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties, has emerged as a muscular and richly funded progressive powerhouse in recent years, taking on the Trump administration in more than 400 lawsuits. But the organization finds itself riven with internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle — unwavering devotion to the First Amendment.
Its national and state staff members debate, often hotly, whether defense of speech conflicts with advocacy for a growing number of progressive causes, including voting rights, reparations, transgender rights and defunding the police.
Those debates mirror those of the larger culture, where a belief in the centrality of free speech to American democracy contends with ever more forceful progressive arguments that hate speech is a form of psychological and even physical violence. These conflicts are unsettling to many of the crusading lawyers who helped build the A.C.L.U.
The organization, said its former director Ira Glasser, risks surrendering its original and unique mission in pursuit of progressive glory.
“There are a lot of organizations fighting eloquently for racial justice and immigrant rights,” Mr. Glasser said. “But there’s only one A.C.L.U. that is a content-neutral defender of free speech. I fear we’re in danger of losing that.”
Founded a century ago, the A.C.L.U. took root in the defense of conscientious objectors to World War I and Americans accused of Communist sympathies after the Russian Revolution. Its lawyers made their bones by defending the free speech rights of labor organizers and civil rights activists, the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan. Their willingness to advocate for speech no matter how offensive was central to their shared identity.
One hears markedly less from the A.C.L.U. about free speech nowadays. Its annual reports from 2016 to 2019 highlight its role as a leader in the resistance against President Donald J. Trump. But the words “First Amendment” or “free speech” cannot be found. Nor do those reports mention colleges and universities, where the most volatile speech battles often play out.
Since Mr. Trump’s election, the A.C.L.U. budget has nearly tripled to more than $300 million as its corps of lawyers doubled. The same number of lawyers — four — specialize in free speech as a decade ago. ...
“Am I sorry I leaned into our opposition to Trump? Hell no,” [executive director Anthony] Romero said. “I’m asked, ‘Are we a free speech or racial justice organization?’ and I answer, ‘Yes.’ We are a domestic human rights organization.” ...
The A.C.L.U. became an embodiment of anti-Trump resistance. More than $1 million in donations sluiced into its coffers within 24 hours and tens of millions of dollars followed in 2017, making the organization better funded than ever before. Salaries reflected that — Mr. Romero now makes $650,000 and some staff attorneys $400,000. Its 2017 annual report came with “RESIST” superimposed on an image of the Statue of Liberty.