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ACLU Defends KKK Free Speech: Right or Wrong?

by John Spritzler

June 27, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union announced recently that it would defend the free speech rights of the notoriously racist Ku Klux Klan. Specifically, the ACLU will defend the right of the KKK to "adopt" a section of public highway (i.e. agree to have its volunteers clean up trash on the road) in return for public signage giving the KKK credit for a public service, in a state program that encourages civic groups to adopt highways this way.

Is the ACLU defending a violent organization?

I don't believe there is a single KKK organization today. There are numerous organizations that call themselves KKK. The particular organization that the ACLU is defending is the "International Keystone Knights" chapter (or whatever) of the KKK, with its website at This website declares the organization opposed to violence. It only advertises aims on its website that can also be found on the websites of non-KKK right wing Republicans or talk-radio hosts: things like "close the borders," and "Language: English only," "Mandatory drug screening before welfare," etc. Its stated aims are not explicitly racist.

But the website also embraces the Ku Klux Klan identity by devoting most of the site to a proud description of the history of the Ku Klux Klan and by listing nine contact persons with titles in the KKK tradition, such as "Imperial Wizard" and "Alabama Grand Dragon." Here is a sentence from the site's proud history section:

"The negroids were brought under control, and the State governments returned to control by White Southern men, the carpetbaggers were sent packing, and White Supremacy once again dominated Southern Culture and Government. Once this was an accomplished fact, the KKK in actual fact and in almost total unison did actually disband, only to be revived once the need arose again."

The KKK has a notoriously violent and racist history of cross-burnings and lynchings of blacks and, in the 1960s, of murders of both blacks and whites who participated in Civil Rights actions, all intended to terrorize blacks and enforce the racist Jim Crow laws of the American South. Given this violent and racist history, any organization that proudly identifies itself as KKK is an organization that at least implicitly threatens violence against those who want equality and solidarity among people of all races. This is true even if its website disavows violence and avoids using explicitly racist language in stating its current aims.

The ACLU is thus defending the free speech rights of an organization that implicitly threatens racist violence to prevent equality and solidarity between black and white people. Is the ACLU right or wrong?

I think it is wrong. But I know a lot of good people would say it is right. The question is important for us to discuss carefully because in the course of building a revolutionary movement, for a more equal and democratic society based on mutual aid, we will have to decide how to relate to those who disagree with us.

The Principle of Free Speech

The principle of free speech that we are so familiar with, that we are taught in school and told to honor by newspaper editors and media talking heads, is often expressed with the famous quotation attributed to Voltaire: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

The problem with this principle, which so many people embrace, is that there is no sharp line separating it, in practice, from a principle that virtually nobody embraces: "I do not agree with what you are doing, but I'll defend to the death your right to do it."


When free speech should be denied

The fact is that "saying" is a kind of "doing." The most famous illustration of this fact is the one cited by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, who wrote for a unanimous Court: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger..."

The context of this statement was the Court's defense of the government's right to prevent the distribution of flyers opposing the military draft for World War I. Holmes supported the United States military actions in that war and understood that flyers opposed to the draft were not merely saying something; they were also doing something--impeding the war effort. Holmes may have been wrong about the rightness of the U.S. entry into World War I, but he was right in seeing that in this context saying is a kind of doing.

Whenever there is a conflict between people with fundamentally opposing goals and values, then one side will prevail over the other because it brings to bear greater force or the threat of greater force against the other side. But how do people bring to bear force against a foe? They do it by organizing themselves for that purpose. And how do they organize themselves? They do it by communicating with each other, expressing ideas and arguments to persuade others to act in a certain way. In other words they do it by saying things. The most violent application of force requires first that certain things be said.

If you are confronted by a hostile group of people who are organizing themselves so as to be able to commit violence against you, your self-defense against violence would legitimately include doing anything you could to prevent your enemy from communicating with each other, in other words denying them free speech.

Imagine you're in a dangerous part of the city. A woman is being raped and the rapist has a friend with him and other friends within shouting distance. Some good people come to the aid of the woman, and struggle with the rapist. The rapist's friend yells out for others to come help the rapist. A good person puts his hand over the mouth of the rapist's friend to prevent him from calling for help. In so doing he denies the rapist's friend freedom of speech. Right or wrong? Right, obviously. Saying is a kind of doing, and some doings should not be done.

It is not always right to defend somebody's right to say something. Sometimes it is right to deny somebody free speech, and sometimes it is wrong. The decision to allow or deny free speech can only be made by considering the consequences in the particular case at hand.

When free speech should be defended

Let's consider what are some good reasons for defending free speech of those with whom one disagrees.

When somebody is using speech to achieve a goal that one thinks is fundamentally wrong, then one has no moral obligation to defend that person's free speech. There may, however, be a good reason to defend such speech. In some--not all--circumstances one can be more effective in opposing a bad goal by allowing its advocates free speech than by denying them free speech.

For example, during the early years of the Vietnam War the U.S. government had a lot of public support for the war based on government lies that the public did not know were lies. People opposed to the war held teach-ins and went out of their way to invite the government to send a pro-war person to present the government's case, knowing that the pro-war arguments could be persuasively refuted. Allowing the government people to speak made the anti-war position more persuasive than not allowing them to speak, because the audiences saw how the government people were unable to refute the challenges to their lies.

A very different case is when people share fundamental values and goals. Among such people there are often, nonetheless, disagreements about secondary matters. This is when the principle of free speech makes the most sense. Everybody should be allowed to express their opinions so that there can be a full and genuine discussion that will have the best chance of leading to a sensible consensus, or at least a majority view that will be minimally distasteful to the minority. Such an open free-speech environment will also maximize the chance that better ideas will eventually win out over poorer ones.

Will We Lose Our Own Free Speech If We Don't Defend Everyone's Free Speech?

No. The notion that in order to protect free speech for good purposes one must also protect it for bad purposes is false. What makes this false notion seem true is the equally false idea that, as we are taught in our schools and corporate-controlled mass media and other institutions, the rulers of our class riven society make and enforce laws that are impartial to one side or another in the conflict between the working class and the elite Big Money ruling class. This is a fairy tale. According to this fairy tale, the laws about free speech will either be "free speech for everybody" or "free speech for nobody."

The reality is quite different. In the United States, the very concept of free speech for working class people to challenge the upper class did not exist until the radical working class organization, the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Wobblies") fought for the right. Wobblies in the early 1900s gave speeches in public, got arrested, and were replaced by more Wobblies giving speeches, filling up the jails, until finally the government stopped arresting people for giving speeches in public that the government did not approve of. Prior to this there was all the free speech in the world, however, for the wealthy class with their newspapers to preach the views of Big Money.

While free speech for the upper class is guaranteed as long as that class holds power, free speech for working people to challenge the upper class waxes and wanes according to how hard it is fought for. In the 1960s a radical movement in the U.S. won the right for students to pass out leaflets against racism and the Vietnam War and other ruling class policies on college campuses, without having to ask anybody for prior permission. Today Harvard University and other so-called "bastions of free speech" do not let students or members of the faculty or any other employees pass out leaflets on college property unless the administration gives prior approval, and I know from personal experience at Harvard that this approval is typically not given if the content of the leaflet challenges a key ruling class lie.

Harvard told me I could not pass out a leaflet against Zionism on the campus because, "We do not allow distribution of materials not directly related to school business within the School property. The public spaces are so small, and the traffic so high in them, that we simply don't have the room to accommodate this sort of activity." This was, of course, a patent lie, as evidenced by the fact that when I threatened to pass out the leaflet on public property with a note explaining that Harvard had refused to let it be distributed on campus, the University's dean of academic affairs did a 180 degree turn-around and emailed me saying, "John, I agree that the School should provide opportunities for discussion of important public health and human rights issues. We have been thinking about how you can air the issues you have raised without disrupting the other business of the School. To that end, we would like to offer you the opportunity to 'table' on the first floor of the Kresge Building, distribute your leaflets, and talk with other members of the community about these issues."

What history teaches is that the way to win freedom of speech for good purposes is to fight for freedom of speech for good purposes, period. Whenever the ruling class claims to be restricting freedom of speech across the board no matter what the content for some supposedly "neutral" reason ("the public spaces are so small"), we should expose that claim as the lie that it is, point out that the ruling class is not restricting its own freedom of speech in any meaningful way, and fight for freedom of speech for good purposes.

Free Speech for the Ku Klux Klan?

The fact that the KKK organization being defended by the ACLU does not condemn the racist violence of the KKK in the past, and proudly identifies as a KKK organization, means that it is an organization whose actual, though unstated, purpose is to provide self-confidence (strength in numbers) to the kind of people who are likely to carry out racist violence. Allowing such an organization to gain legitimacy and to recruit more effectively by having public signs on a highway praising them for their civic mindedness serves no good purpose, only a bad one. There is no reason to provide this KKK organization this free speech, and every reason to deny it.

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