FREE SPEECH 57: The ACLU's Controversial Approach to Hate Speech, with Laura Weinrib
"Commentators have rightly observed that the ACLU has defended far-right speech since its founding, despite fierce criticism. But there is a common and mistaken premise in this analysis. It assumes that the organization has always believed, as it does today, that “freedom of expression is an end in itself.” In reality, the early ACLU viewed free speech as a tool of social justice, suited to particular purposes under particular conditions.
To correct the prevailing misconception, we need to look back to the 1930s, when economic desperation was fueling a battle between reactionary impulses and radical aspirations, and Nazis first appeared on American streets. Even as American fascists appealed to anti-Semitism and white privilege, the ACLU fought for their right to hold rallies. Although it did not oppose regulations against armed marches, it insisted that “the right to parade,” even “in brown shirts with swastikas,” should “never be denied.”
Laura Weinrib is Professor of Law and an Associate Member of the University of Chicago Department of History. A legal historian, her scholarship explores the intersection of constitutional law and labor law. She is the author of The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise (Harvard University Press, 2016), which traces the emergence during the first half of the twentieth century of a constitutional and court-centered concept of civil liberties as a defining feature of American democracy.
Weinrib is a 2003 graduate of Harvard Law School. She completed her PhD in history at Princeton University in 2011. In 2000, she received an AB in literature and an AM in comparative literature from Harvard University. After law school, Weinrib clerked for Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. From 2009 to 2010, she was a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History at the New York University School of Law.