A number of weeks ago Black Lives Matter activists crashed an ACLU speaking event at the College of William and Mary, shutting it down while accusing the ACLU representative and the organization of “protecting Hitler” and supporting “white supremacy.” William and Mary, for its part, issued a pathetic and cowardly condemnation of the protesters, declaring, “Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community,” as if using implied violence to strike at the very foundation of the free speech were a mildly annoying diversionary tactic rather than the stuff of half-bright wannabe dictators.
At the time the ACLU, to its credit, issued a stinging rebuke of this all-too-common campus disruption tactic. The ACLU has become something of a progressive policy shop in recent years, but its commitment to freedom of speech has been relentless and unwavering—they understand, better than most people, that you can’t have a free speech regime unless your speech is actually free, i.e. you can’t censor speech you don’t like, even the bad stuff, even the really bad stuff like Nazis, and even the super-bad stuff like Ben Shapiro, without abolishing free speech altogether and instituting an order of genuine oppression.
Progressive activists, particularly those on college campuses, have recently opted for a sort of workaround of America’s liberal free speech regime, utilizing thug mob tactics as they did at William and Mary to shut up those with whom they disagree. The ACLU, for its part, recognizes—or at least they did, at one point—that this kind of behavior in inimical to a free society; in its statement the organization claimed, in part:
Disruption that prevents a speaker from speaking, and audience members from hearing the speaker, is not constitutionally protected speech even on a public college campus subject to the First Amendment; it is a classic example of a heckler’s veto, and, appropriately, can be prohibited by a college student code of conduct as it is at William and Mary. As a government entity, a public college like William and Mary has an obligation to protect the freedom of the speaker to speak and not to allow one group of people to shout down or seek to intimidate other speakers or members of the audience who wish to hear the speaker from exercising their own free speech rights. This is true regardless of what individuals or groups are speaking, protesting or counter-protesting…
What happened at William and Mary on Sept. 27 is a part of a larger national trend that is challenging campus leaders across the country to find the right formula for assuring that critical community conversations can take place in a culture of inquiry consistent with a true learning environment. Actions that bully, intimidate or disrupt must not be without consequences in any such formula.
Good stuff, right? Well, it was good stuff—but in the intervening weeks the Virginia ACLU unfortunately excised these words from its statement. Now, the only condemnation of the mob they can muster is to call it “disappointing.” Apparently the excised portions of the original statement “no longer reflect the VA ACLU’s current position.” Current position on what? Does the state’s ACLU now find it acceptable to “bully, intimidate or disrupt” individuals who are engaging in constitutionally-protected speech? Do they support “disruptions that prevents a speaker from speaking, and audience members from hearing the speaker?” Is that the new frontier of free speech to which they’ve ascribed?
Maybe so—and if that’s the case, it is a bizarre and stupid and really quite pathetic stance to take. It should not be hard to stand up to the kinds of people who think you’re a “white supremacist” for believing in robust free speech protections; it should not be difficult to condemn the kind of mob-driven silencing tactics which college students have found so useful in recent years. This is elementary stuff, practical civil rights 101. It doesn’t matter that the government won’t censor your speech if lawless bands of intractable activists are going to do it anyway; the end result is the same.
In the case of the ACLU’s being driven from William and Mary’s campus, it’s not even fair to say that the mob was exercising a “heckler’s veto;” as was reported at the time, after the event was officially cancelled, some attendees wanted to speak to the ACLU rep, but the activists weren’t having any of that: they “surrounded [her], raised their voices even louder, and drove everybody else away.” It was not enough that the event was shut down; Black Lives Matter literally forbid people from talking to one another.
A short while ago Virginia’s ACLU called this type of behavior “bullying” and “intimidation” and said that anyone engaging in these kinds of tactics should face “consequences.” In just a few short weeks they apparently changed their minds. So what does it say about the future of American free speech that one of its greatest defenders has apparently backed down in the face of an anti-free-speech mob? When one of the principle champions of the First Amendment has apparently decided that it’s perfectly okay to subject one of your constitutional liberties to the irrational forces of vigilante activism, what do you think will eventually become of the rest of the Bill of Rights?