Statement from Caitlin Borgmann, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana:
The ACLU of Montana emphatically condemns the violence and racism that caused immeasurable suffering this past weekend in Charlottesville. We are sickened by the white supremacist terrorist attack that claimed the life of a courageous young woman and injured others taking a stand against hate. As we have for decades, we stand steadfast with affected and marginalized communities.
We understand that in circumstances like those surrounding us today, it is difficult to grasp why the ACLU so vigorously defends the right to speak, even for those whose views we abhor. But the same First Amendment principles that protect racist, bigoted speech are the critical weapons we need to fight the hateful positions such speech promotes.
Free speech is an essential component of democracy and a vital tool in the fight for justice and equality. Indeed, it is the first enumerated right under the United States Constitution. Every time we allow the government to silence speech, even loathesome speech, we open the door to government suppression of all speech. It won’t be up to us to pick and choose - it will be up to the government. Imagine those decisions placed in the hands of President Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Some have tried to distinguish the hateful speech of white supremacists as uniquely deserving of suppression. But our history is far more replete with attacks on marginalized communities’ speech than that of white, privileged groups. If not for the First Amendment, the NAACP’s economic boycotts and other civil rights activism would have long ago been silenced. The LGBT rights movement sparked by the Stonewall riots would have been stopped in its tracks.
Just yesterday, Dan Bishop, a North Carolina state senator, said Black Lives Matter—a group that protests police brutality and advocates for equality and civil rights—is a racist and violent movement that should be condemned to the same degree as groups waving Nazi flags. Without the First Amendment, a whisper or suggestion of violence, whether rooted in truth or not, would be enough to silence groups like Black Lives Matter.
As for the Charlottesville rally, you can be sure that any leeway given to the government to suppress white supremacist speech will quickly be employed against counter-protestors, not just in Charlottesville but throughout the country. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice sought the identification of 1.3 million Americans who had visited a website used to protest President Trump.
The ACLU will never condone violence, and we will steadfastly fight the kind of hateful bigotry and discrimination espoused by the Nazis and white supremacists. But if we ban speech that is controversial, offensive, and even hurtful, we render all speech vulnerable to an interpretation that justifies censorship and state-enforced silence. We cannot fight for the rights of historically marginalized communities to speak out if we do not fight for the First Amendment rights of all Americans.