Full disclosure for this post, I used to work for my local ACLU affiliate. The situation surrounding my leaving was complicated and terrible. I am angry about the personal experience I had while working there and I also think that the ACLU does great work on a lot of important issues. I am a complex person and I am capable of having multiple feelings about something at once. Ok, now that we have that out of the way, I want to tell you why you should be cautious about donating money to the ACLU.
The ACLU is an old AF non-profit institution whose primary mission is to protect our civil liberties as defined by the United States Constitution. On the state and national level, the ACLU has passed legislation and won court cases that have positively impacted thousands of people. The ACLU’s work on immigration, women’s rights, LGBTQ justice, and protecting religious freedom were all things I was proud to a part of as an employee. Then there was free speech …
The ACLU interprets the First Amendment in a way that is referred to as free speech absolutism. Although they don’t use that term, they take pride in being criticized by both liberal and conservative groups. Liberal groups often say they put liberties before rights and thus hurt oppressed communities. Conservative groups say they focus too much on rights and have strayed from their original civil liberties purist mission. This ongoing “we piss off everyone” thing, gives everyone at the ACLU a giant boner.
The ACLU believes that anyone should be able to say anything they want at any time free from government interference. This theory sounds spot on; no one thinks that government censorship is an excellent idea. But the way the average person interprets free speech just scratches the surface in comparison to free speech absolutism. Absolutists are against laws preventing hate speech, against laws limiting the actions of corporations (thanks, Citizen’s United), and will openly defend the right of hate groups, like the KKK, to publish and distribute materials and to march.
Organizations, like the ACLU, who espouse free speech absolutism will often say that the solution to hate speech is more speech, not more regulation. They believe that the more we talk, the closer we can get to equality. Recently, the ACLU has had a record number of donations, and with that money, they will undoubtedly do some amazing work to curb the attacks on civil liberties that the Trump administration is tossing out like candy from a white supremacist parade float. They could also use that money to defend the KKK and other hate groups. The ACLU has defended the KKK before and per their mission, would do so again. This information is, unsurprisingly, missing from their current marketing campaigns.
The American people are angry that we have folks in the Whitehouse who are anti-semitic and racist and are throwing their money at an organization who have won cases that allowed Nazis, the KKK, and other hate groups to continue to grow and build power? Highly suspect.
The ACLU has defended the confederate flag, racist fraternity parties, the Washington football team’s racist name, the Westboro Baptist Church, and has been willing to work collaboratively with the Koch brothers. I wonder if the millions of new donors knew any of that? I wonder what they would think if they knew their money could go toward the groups and ideologies that allowed a Trump presidency to become a reality?
I get why the ACLU can’t include their ongoing Nazi defender status on their postcard mailers to members or on full-page ads in the New York Times. Everyone has to make money; nonprofits have bills to pay too. Nonprofits can be just as shady with their marketing tactics as the biggest corporations. I will probably write about that at some point. Anyway. I get why they aren’t putting “WE MIGHT DEFEND THE KKK WITH YOUR MONEY. PLEASE DONATE,” across the top of their website, but they aren’t exactly making that information known either. I’ve had too many conversations with people I know, and I’ve seen too many people on Twitter absolutely shook after finding out that the organization they gave 100 green American dollars too was down to defend the people who they hate/fear the most. When you are telling people that their money is going toward social good, you should do everything you can to make sure your dirty laundry doesn’t come as a total surprise.
Basic marketing theory tells you that it is better to admit the limitations of your product because the public is going to find out eventually. Either spend the time to make sure your product is exactly what people expect it to be or let them know what it isn’t. In this case, the ACLU’s product is the services they are offering to vulnerable people. It is especially problematic that they don’t openly discuss the way money could be used while positioning themselves as heroes against Trump. They should be more transparent. People should be able to make an informed decision about what their money is funding.
So here is where I break down why I’m not even really too much here for free speech absolutism. Words have power. Words contribute to a culture of violence. When you hear a group of people referred to in a negative way from media and elected officials, even if you have no solid opinion on the issue, the language used is absorbed. Call a group of people “illegals” instead of “humans” often enough, and it becomes easy to think they are less deserving of rights. Let elected officials say that all Muslims are terrorists often enough, and you can’t act surprised when Muslim women are being attacked and having their hijab pulled off in public. Words matter. This harmful language doesn’t fall under hate speech laws (which the ACLU is almost always against). This kind of language is allowed, even though there are correlations between misrepresentation of marginalized groups by elected officials and the media and violence directed toward those groups.
Free speech only works when everyone is given the microphone for equal amounts of time and at the same volume. Only then can we fight hateful speech with more speech. If those in power get all the air time and use it to build a culture of violence, and no one ever hears from the impacted group, who is free speech really serving? Never forget that the Constitution was written by and for white dudes. Under the constitution, slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment and all kinds of other racist and sexist shit was legal. Free speech absolutism only benefits white cis-het dudes because that is who it was built to benefit.
Yes, we have to protect the rights of citizens to speak out against the government free from retribution, but we also have to think critically about how our current laws and legal documents are serving us. The constitution was meant to be a living document. When the rights spelled out it in are used to oppress this country’s people, it is time for changes. The first thing that needs to change is the path paved by groups like the ACLU for the violent, extreme, moderate, and everything in between Right to co-opt free speech as a tool of oppression. Not everyone has free speech and nothing about the current way we defend free speech is making it more accessible.
If our society was moving towards a culture of more community driven media, more community access to decision-making bodies, or if those of us who have historically been silenced were getting more air time, then I would say hell yeah more speech can be the solution to harmful speech. Sadly, none of those things are happening at a rate that keeps up with the expansion of platforms for dangerous speech. The expansion of dangerous and harmful speech that misrepresents communities of color, women, youth, and anyone who isn’t Christian has created the environment for Donald Trump to be president and to run on a platform of oppression.
I think we need to move to focusing more on providing responsible speech for all rather than free speech for all. Responsible speech is speech that uplifts historically silenced communities and lets them lead the narrative of their experience; responsible speech doesn’t include speech that contributes to a culture of violence. I don’t know how that looks legally, but I know that the legal protections that exist aren’t cutting it anymore, so we have to start thinking of possible solutions. Also, just a reminder that our legal system, like all systems in this country, was also built on a foundation of white supremacy. Bloop.
You should give money to the ACLU if you want to, but you should be fully informed about how they might use that money. If you do not want to fund the protection of a hate group’s speech, then you ought to look to other organizations that do great work. I’ll list some below.
I think it is unethical to take donations from people who are scared for the future of their families and communities without fully disclosing the potential ways the money will be used. Yes, the ACLU will say people could look that up themselves (classist/ableist.), but in moments of crisis, people will rarely spend the time to do research on an organization that is in the news saying they will fight for you. It is the ACLU’s responsibility as an organization that aims to advance social justice for all people to explain the limits of that fight.
The money the ACLU has raised over the past few weeks will undoubtedly be used to do amazing things, and we should all support them in the fights that uplift our communities. But if you are giving them money you deserve to know the facts.
Some Orgs to Donate To (not including local NM orgs, as I’ll be listing them in a future post)
And some of these organizations are most likely problematic too, but I haven’t come across information about it. Humans ruin everything so let me know if there are ethical issues with any of these orgs (in their marketing, how they treat staff, etc.) and I will remove them.
This is only the surface. If you know of some good organizations deserving of your dollars, leave them in the comments below.