When Ira Glasser Ran The ACLU

The [other] old guy, Jeffrey Gamso, noted that the ACLU founders on the rocks of social justice donations, ceding its historic concern for civil liberties to the mob with paypal, but wasn’t always this way.

You might want to go back and read the news stories about the ACLU’s national board fracturing over the appointment and early days (years) of Romero as Executive Director. The Board essentially self-purged, the long-time committed civil libertarians quitting (there was some talk of them being forced out).

Romero is not and was not a civil libertarian. He is an old-fashioned (as in left and right, not philosophical/Lockian), liberal do-gooder who came to the ACLU from a position with the Ford Foundation.

Ira Glasser, the prior ED, and a strong civil libertarian who’d resigned after decades in the job, was disgusted, and rightly so, and even joined in creating an anti-Romero rump group on the outside.

Who, you ask, is this Ira Glasser? What would he have to say about the ACLU rejecting constitutional rights in favor of pandering to the SJWs? At Concurring Opinions, Ronald K.L. Collins posts Glasser’s thoughts in response to Collins’ very cautious post, Abandoned? The Liberal Flight from the First Amendment.

Ira Glasser

The key question that many “progressives” have been mostly ignoring is the question of power: Regardless of intellectual standards developed by academics to distinguish between speech that they believe has only negative or minimal value to the democratic experiment, and which therefore they believe can be distinguished from other speech and safely restricted, the only important question is who will decide how such standards are applied, and to whom.

If “offensive” speech or “hate” speech were legally unprotected by the First Amendment, whose speech would be restricted in the real world under that standard would differ depending on who had the power to decide. Donald Trump or Richard Nixon or Rudy Guiliani or Joe McCarthy would decide very differently from, say, the head of the ACLU, or the NAACP, or Catherine MacKinnon. But it is the former group, or people like them, who will more often have that power in the real world than the latter, or people like them.

This is what would best be characterized as a first level argument, the obvious pragmatic reaction to the offended who believe that their Utopian notions won’t be used against them. It’s a particularly potent argument now, with Trump in the presidency, being given the power to decide what speech is “worthy” of protection.

It’s not, however, my preferred argument. The problem is that it still posits that there is “good” and “bad” speech, and the “real” problem is who gets to decide which is which. But it’s an easily digestible argument, as Glasser makes clear:

At many universities today, where “progressive” faculty and administrators have decisive power, this question doesn’t arise often enough, but in the real world it is inescapable. Academics can make arguably justifiable analytic distinctions between good speech and bad, but those distinctions cannot hold in the real world where the power to decide how they are applied is often in the hands of one’s political enemies.

No one wants the power to dictate speech in the “hands of one’s political enemies.” The downside is obvious. But do we really want the power to dictate speech in anyone’s hands?

At the beginning of our nation, the prevailing view even among many civil libertarians of how the First Amendment should work included the belief that false speech did not deserve such protection. But as the Sedition Act of 1798, which made “false, scandalous and malicious” speech a crime, showed, the power to target disfavored political speech as “false, scandalous or malicious” (and at the very least put it on trial, and the way that law was used to prosecute and imprison political critics of John Adams), persuaded many that in order to protect true speech, false speech had to be protected as well. This was because in the world of politics and power, the ability to label disfavored speech as “false” or “malicious” would inevitably spill over onto precisely that speech the First Amendment was designed to protect, including their own.

There has always been a war between “true” and “false” speech, with each side favoring its own flavor and screaming that the other side is lying. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. Maybe what appeared to be false once is now true, or the other way around.

Do we know, today, the “truth”? Some believe they do with such absolute certainty that they’re prepared to destroy anyone who disagrees, who questions them, who challenges their orthodoxy.

And this is where the second level argument arises, that Glasser left off the table. Over the centuries, we’ve come to learn that many of our beliefs, our certainties, turned out not to be as true, or as absolute, as we believed. We’ve been wrong about a great many things over time. And we’ve learned better, only to realize yet again that we’re wrong. History is replete with trial and error, theories and philosophies that we accepted as truths that we now see as not merely wrong, but horribly wrong.

But had we fixed a point in time a century ago, when we were so enlightened, so certain that what we knew at that moment in time was so correct that we need never again argue or disagree, everything we’ve learned in the past hundred years might never have happened. The arrogance of believing that today, that at this moment in time, we’re so perfectly correct in our beliefs that we can silence all disagreement, prevent any heretic from calling our gods false, is absurd.

It’s not that people haven’t believed they were finally so enlightened that there couldn’t possibly be any errors in their judgments, anything new to learn, any mistakes to correct. People have always believed that. And they’ve always been wrong. That’s why we still need heretics, not because they’re necessarily right but because they aren’t necessarily wrong.

18 thoughts on “When Ira Glasser Ran The ACLU

  1. Ken Mackenzie

    Every orthodox view today was once a heresy: an elected leader, distributed power, votes by all men, votes by women, rights regardless of skin pigmentation, a federation of States, religious freedom. It’s all taken for granted now that these ideas were always right and obviously so. Some of today’s outliers will fight and earn their place in tomorrow’s consensus. The orthodox instinctively resist. I wonder whether the self-righteous censors of Mr Murray and Mr Blackman would have burned books in Berlin, purged shopkeepers in Beijing, and applauded the trial of Galileo. Is it just the same mindset? Can blind faith and the quest for ideological purity be avoided when any ideology becomes dominant?

    The Universities were once regarded as a check against just that danger.

      1. Scott Jacobs

        “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – Mark Twain (attributed)

    1. Rxc

      Brendan O’Neill at Spiked just published a very similar article about heresy. This is a very important subject. Thanks to SHG for spreading the word.

    1. Henry Berry

      Or as I put it in one of my books: : To put it briefly, modernism has been a process of the breakup of Santayana’s often-quoted remark, “Progress far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This remark, particularly the second half of it, has been repeated so often that it has come to be taken as a truism. However, as modernism with its determined ingenuity, inexhaustible resources, and visionary dispositions has shown—and as we are seeing especially in the time of postmodernism—it is possible for a society to neither remember nor repeat the past. Such is the dubious blessing of the stasis of postmodernism.” Welcome to the merry-go-round. We are no longer in historical cycles — not even forgetting and remembering apply, but rather emptiness and dizziness.

        1. Billy Bob

          Now I’m between the rock of Santayana (rhymes with banana) and the hard place of Twain, Hey, I resent that remark, Mister SGH. (Sigmund Gertrude Heraldo Rivera, in the First Degree.) Henry is an associate of mine,… we both got slammed in the UnConstituition State of CONnecticut, and you can take that to the Bank of Amerika, if you can find a branch of fresh air. If you imbeciles are unbelievers, well,… let me say this about that! We are both “connected” to the Kennedy clan, if that floats yer boat. We also know Mister Kerry,… who refused to help us in our Hour of Kneed. Which explains why we have not yet been sprung, like Michael Skakel. Skakel is innocent and we know who the real murderer is, but we’re not telling–not on the inter-net anyhow.
          I resent that snide remark of yours, Mister SGH. We apologize for the tardiness of our response, but,… just lost my train of thought, if you catch my drift?
          All the Best,
          The Chairman of the Bored.

  2. wilbur

    Those who would suffocate debate and dissent ultimately wish to suffocate individual thought as well.

  3. B. McLeod

    It is easy to see how the “who will be at the controls” argument pops out at the fore, in the context of what has (all too predictably) just happened with “pen-and-phone.” Indeed, it may not be the best argument, but it does provide a good illustration of why we shouldn’t repeal constitutional protections in pursuance of one momentary, PC fad or another. Head down a thoughtless path, find unintended consequences.

  4. Harvey A. Silverglate

    Greenfield’s essay is spot-on, full of wisdom and experience, and citing the free speech arguments of Ira Glasser, another fellow full of wisdom and experience. And I would like to add one further defense of free speech that I learned from a young undergraduate who argued in the late 1990’s against his college’s faculty’s adoption of a “hate speech code.” The student disclosed that he was gay, and he said that while adoption of a “hate speech” code might help keep him from having hurt feelings when anti-gay slurs were directed his way, in fact such prior-restraint censorship would put him in grave danger, “because I would no longer know who hated me because of my sexual orientation, and hence I would not know on whom I should not turn my back. I am more secure and safe in a free speech environment, where my enemies are not deterred by censorship from telling me that they hate me. HARVEY SILVERGLATE, Cambridge, MA.

    1. Ken Mackenzie

      When the bigoted haters are forced into silence their certainties go unchallenged. They become not only more certain, but convinced that a very large proportion of the people would agree with them, but for the rule enforcing silence. Let them speak, and hear the answer and the laughter, “Nonsense. You’re a drongo.”

  5. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    The ACLU even before Glasser knew what was up. A history lesson could do them a lot of good, if only they could stop pandering and fundraising for a few minutes. They made the points you did before either of us were alive in regards to the real deal nazis.


    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, PK. The reason Glasser matters is that he was the last of the civil libertarian EDs, not the first.

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