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ACLU Leader On Defending Hate Groups


Why does the American Civil Liberties Union defend the rights of Nazis? Membership and donations have boomed since the 2016 election, as the ACLU has taken on a number of high-profile cases challenging Trump administration policies on immigration, deportation and voter suppression. But some supporters of the organization have questioned the ACLU's defense of the free-speech rights of hate groups, especially following their defense of white nationalist rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago, when Heather Heyer was killed. A board member of the ACLU's Virginia affiliate resigned, tweeting - what's legal and what's right are sometimes different. I won't be a fig leaf for Nazis.

We're joined now by the national executive director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero. Mr. Romero, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTHONY ROMERO: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Is the ACLU a fig leaf for Nazis?

ROMERO: No, sir. We are the premier defenders of freedom of speech and racial justice and the rights of all people in the U.S. For almost a hundred years, our mission has been to defend the rights of everyone, even people we hate. And ultimately, this is about making sure the government never has the authority or the ability to censor speech because it finds it loathsome or disgusting. There are ways for government to regulate speech. It's got to be neutral. There are time, place, manner restrictions that are perfectly appropriate and legitimate. And yet, it can never be because we don't like what folks say.

SIMON: What about when the marchers are armed, though? Doesn't that make a difference to public safety?

ROMERO: Sure, it definitely does. And it's funny because we went back into our archives and we turned up a pamphlet from 1934 that was entitled, Shall We Defend Free Speech For Nazis In America? And even at that time, our organization understood the difference between people who were requiring or requesting the right to protest and those who were requiring or requesting the right to protest with arms. And we took the position in 1934 that we would not defend the rights of those organizations to march armed.

The First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas, not the exchange of bullets. And we are concerned that the presence of arms in tense situations, such as we saw in Charlottesville, may risk the escalation of violence and may shut down speech and may allow government the opportunity to take speech-suppressive measures. And so I think those are exactly the questions we need to ask on a case-by-case basis when we make determinations of whom to represent in First Amendment cases. You know, understand...

SIMON: But I have to ask, did you not know that a lot of the Nazis, neo-Nazis, white supremacists in Charlottesville were armed?

ROMERO: No, sir. Mr. Kessler, when he signed the certified...

SIMON: Jason Kessler is the guy who got the permit, and you represented him.

ROMERO: Said that he would - he was endeavoring to organize a peaceful protest.

SIMON: I broke into this business covering the Nazi plans to march in Skokie, Ill., in the late '70s. Illinois ACLU bravely defended the right of the Nazis to march, even as they lost members and money. Does that episode give you any guidance now?

ROMERO: Of course. Of course. And it was a hard decision then. And it was certainly a hard decision now. And this organization always has to ask tough questions, understand the facts and circumstances of the time. These are never easy issues, but they're critical ones for our organization and they're critical ones for our democracy right now.

SIMON: Well, you've reportedly - your membership reportedly has quadrupled. And you've raised more than $80 million in online donations in recent months.


SIMON: Are you prepared to lose millions of dollars and members?

ROMERO: I don't think it's going to come to that. I think the American public has come a long way in understanding the importance of freedom of speech. That's not to say that there isn't controversy. You look on social media. You look even within the organization. People have different points of view and may have concerns about defending individuals that we detest. But ultimately, we need to also reckon with the fact that if we grant government the ability to deny people protest permits because of what they say or how they say it or what they stand for, that we'll find then that speech in other contexts will be regulated and suppressed.

SIMON: Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thanks so much.

ROMERO: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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