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Civil libertarians often suggest that, when confronted with an objectionable opinion, it is better to exercise your own freedom of speech rather than attempt to restrict the freedom of the person who offended you. I make that suggestion fairly often myself. After reading Jim Adkins’ guest column in last Monday’s edition of the Perry County News, I’ve decided to heed my own advice. Mr. Adkins’ colorful, albeit unoriginal, criticism of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides yet another opportunity to correct some of the misguided and uninformed opinions about the group. It also provides an opportunity to show the faults in those criticisms. Like so many critics before him, Mr. Adkins cannot or does not differentiate between voicing an opinion and defending the right to voice an opinion.
In the area of free speech, the ACLU is not concerned with what position you are advocating for, they only defend your right to do so. This applies to opinions that most would agree with as well as to opinions that almost no one but the speaker agrees with. Living in a society that values the right of free speech, we are sometimes forced to hear opinions that we may find uncomfortable. We must always remember that the right to voice your opinion does not depend on the comfort of the majority, as Mr. Adkins’ column would seem to suggest. Mr. Adkins correctly points out that the ACLU frequently takes on clients whose views are controversial.
The ACLU of Indiana recently defended a central Indiana Ku Klux Klan member’s right to publish and distribute his newsletter. The ACLU did this even though members of our staff and general membership are African American, Jewish, Catholic, Latino, and Muslim. I doubt I need to remind anyone of the Klan’s views on these folks. The ACLU defended the Klan member’s right to free speech and free press because, in the end, when even these extreme views have the right to be expressed, so do other less extreme views. It is about the right, not about the racism.
Mr. Adkins’ criticism that the ACLU is anti-Christian is another colorful, albeit unoriginal, claim. The ACLU does support the separation of church and state. It does this to protect each from the other. Like many people before him, Mr. Adkins seems to make the claim that his right to free exercise of religion allows him to use the government as a platform to promote his particular flavor of Christianity. The government belongs to us all. None of us, not Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, or Rastafarians possesses the right to use the power of government to force others to take on our beliefs.
Contrary to the claims in Mr. Adkins’ column, our history is full of examples to support this position. From The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom to James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s personal correspondence, which repeatedly reference a separation of religious and governmental functions, our founders repeatedly sought to avoid the strife that state religions had caused for centuries in Europe. Faith and religion can be beautiful things. They are made ugly when certain people use them as a weapon against others. Channeling that weapon through the power of the state makes them hideous.
Mr. Adkins does stumble upon some truth in his column. The ACLU was founded, in part, by socialists of the early 20th century. There is no denying that and I do not apologize for it. I do not apologize for it for a reason Mr. Adkins saw fit to omit from his writing. Socialists of that time were part of the WWI anti-war movement in America. This movement was rather significant and Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1918 in response to it. The act outlawed any speech or writing which painted the government or war effort in a negative light.
Simply put, it was illegal to criticize the government. This law struck at the very heart of our fundamental rights. The ACLU was formed to combat such attacks. It is ironic that Mr. Adkins chose to criticize this particular effort. If this law was still in effect and this view of free speech was cogent, most of the people in Mr. Adkins’ political party would be in prison right now for criticizing our involvement in Libya. The rest of us would be in prison for criticizing the Bush Administration’s actions in Iraq.
Mr. Adkins’ column also overlooked a great deal of the ACLU’s work in other areas. This is easy to do, though, as these other areas get far less press attention but are no less important. The ACLU of Indiana is currently fighting the State of Indiana on the behalf of the foster and adoptive parents of children with disabilities. These wonderful families who have opened their homes to the neediest of children have been denied proper access to government assistance. They’ve also been denied their due process rights to appeal funding decisions by the state.
The ACLU of Indiana is currently fighting on behalf of elderly and disabled people who receive medical treatment in their homes. They want to avoid entering a nursing home for their rehabilitation services, but are being placed in a very difficult position by the state’s administrative rules. Their rights are being trampled in the rush to balance the budget and implement austerity measures. I am very proud to be part of the group defending these people.
I value debate highly. I write this blog to encourage debate. As always, I encourage everyone to join the online conversation. We may not agree. We may even passionately disagree. Either way, we’re still having the debate and that is what matters. We may even find we agree more than we thought. I am very proud to have the honor of serving on the ACLU of Indiana’s Board of Directors. It is a true privilege to have the opportunity to take such an active role in defending the rights guaranteed to all of us in the Constitution of the United States. I appreciate Mr. Adkins voicing his views in his guest column. It provided the readers with an opposing view and provided me with another opportunity to advocate for our rights.
In the end, Mr. Adkins will likely go on criticizing people like me and organizations like the ACLU. We will go on defending his right to do so.
If you have questions or comments about the ACLU of Indiana, or want to pass along something you can’t share in the comments, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.