As with many other long-standing supporters of the ACLU, I have been critical of the politicization of the ACLU in the last decade. Many of the “Old guard” at the ACLU left the organization as it took on a public agenda, including abandoning its long tradition of supporting the least popular in our society in favor of individual rights. Those critics include former ACLU head Ira Glasser, who questioned whether the ACLU still maintains its defining commitment to free speech values.
This trend was evident in its painfully nuanced approach to “hate speech” after criticism following the Charlottesville protests. Free speech protection was once the touchstone of the ACLU which was fearless in its unpopular advocacy. It now seems like an area of open retreat for the organization.
Some of us were particularly alarmed when the ACLU filed to oppose due process rights for students at our colleges and universities, particularly in the imposition of a higher and more consistent evidentiary standard. ACLU filed suit to try to block the increased due process protections mandated by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in her proposed reforms. I have long been a critic of the rollback on due process on our campuses and noted the absence of the ACLU in leading this fight. The ACLU sounded much like its historic opponents in decrying the scourge of too much due process as inhibiting greater enforcement.
With this free fall at ACLU has come an endless line of controversies like an ACLU staffer encouraging activists to “break” Sen. Krysten Sinema (D., Ariz.) and another staffer opposing the admission into college of Nicholas Sandmann. At points, it has become a parody of its own self like celebrating the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by editing her words as offensive.
It is clear that the pursuit of donors and the selection of a more partisan leadership has torn the ACLU way from its original moorings.
FIRE, therefore, could not have picked a more opportune time to announce that it will expand beyond education, stating that a $75 million initiative “will focus on three main areas of programming: litigation, public education, and research.”
Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, told Politico that FIRE so far has “raised $28.5 million for the planned three-year, $75 million litigation, opinion research and public education campaign aimed at boosting and solidifying support for free-speech values.”
The expansion offers a glimmer of hope for many of us who have been saddened by the decline of the ACLU. FIRE has been a major force for free speech protection on our campuses. If it can replicate that success beyond the walls of academia, it could well fill the vacuum left by the new ACLU.