The California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is publicly distancing itself from a position long held by the national organization.

ACLU of Northern California executive director Abdi Soltani issued a joint public statement this week alongside ACLU of Southern California executive director Hector Villagra, along with Norma Chávez-Peterson, who is executive director of the organization’s San Diego and Imperial Counties office. In the statement, the three made the distinction between constitutionally protected free speech and the incitement of violence, which is not protected by any law.

“For those who are wondering where we stand – the ACLU of California fully supports the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to peacefully assemble,” the statement read. “[T]he First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence. If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution.

“The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence,” the statement continued.

In the wake of the domestic terror attack in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend when white supremacist James Fields allegedly killed counter-protester Heather Heyer and injured many others, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero held fast to the organization’s defense of neo-Nazis’ right to free speech and assembly.

“We have a longstanding history of defending the rights of groups we detest and with whom we fundamentally disagree,” Romero told the New York Times in a recent interview.

However, the organization’s rush to defend the assembly of white supremacists enraged many of its members, including Waldo Jaquith, a Virginia ACLU board member who tendered his resignation following the group’s defense of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis.

“What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different,” Jaquith tweeted. “I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis.”

A viral op-ed by housing attorney and University of California-Los Angeles Critical Race Studies fellow K-Sue Park published in the Times‘ Thursday edition calls for the ACLU to reconsider its blanket defense of free speech rights, when taking into account the institutional hurdles that people of color and other marginalized groups face in trying to express their own Constitutional rights.

“The A.C.L.U. needs a more contextual, creative advocacy when it comes to how it defends the freedom of speech. The group should imagine a holistic picture of how speech rights are under attack right now, not focus on only First Amendment case law,” Park wrote. “It must research how new threats to speech are connected to one another and to right-wing power. Acknowledging how criminal laws, voting laws, immigration laws, education laws and laws governing corporations can also curb expression would help it develop better policy positions.”

“Sometimes standing on the wrong side of history in defense of a cause you think is right is still just standing on the wrong side of history,” she added.

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the nation’s oldest civil rights advocacy groups, and perhaps its most influential, given the surge in funding and membership it experienced following 45’s* announcement of the initial Muslim ban. The group now boasts more than 1.2 million members, which is nearly twice as many members as the ACLU had prior to the 2016 presidential election.

(*EDITOR’S NOTE: is now exclusively referring to Donald Trump as “45.” Please read our official statement on Twitter explaining the decision.)


Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.

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