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ACLU defends itself against critics on free speech

David Cole, the director of the ACLU, speaking at a conference
ACLU National Director David Cole speaking at a conference. Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage via Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is defending its position on free speech after a leaked memo last week revealed the organization was having an internal debate on how it weighed free speech against other civil rights.

Why it matters: The ACLU is obligated, as a non-partisan civil rights organization, to defend clients seeking help — even if it doesn't agree with them.

"We can and do defend in court the rights of those whose views we openly denounce. "
— David Cole, National Director of the ACLU

Cole said the ACLU has and is currently defending those they disagree with, including former senior editor for Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos, in a free-speech case against the Washington, D.C. transit authority. The organization reaffirmed that free speech is extended to all, "even to the most repugnant speakers — including white supremacists," Cole said.

The details: Former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer criticized the ACLU last week after an internal memo revealed the company was considering how it weighed free speech when it violated the civil rights of other marginalized groups.

  • The memo did not outline the debate as a policy change and said branches would be able to weigh free speech through their own discretion.
  • In the memo, the ACLU said it was still committed to defending free speech and protecting first amendment rights as an organization.

The backdrop: According to the memo, the ACLU began to consider how to prioritize who they're defending after the Charlottesville rally in 2017. The city initially tried to block the group's right to protest, but the ACLU defended it. The organization faced criticism after.