ACLU changes stance in wake of Charlottesville violence

8/25/2017, 7:41 a.m.
The American Civil Liberties Union no longer will defend hate groups seeking to march with firearms. That was the policy ...

By Holly Rodriguez

The American Civil Liberties Union no longer will defend hate groups seeking to march with firearms.

That was the policy change announced last week by the organization’s national executive director, Anthony Romero.

The organization directly attributes the change to the violent and deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.

White nationalists, alt-right supporters and neo-Nazis held a torchlight procession through the University of Virginia the night before the scheduled rally to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s decision in April to remove a statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, formerly named Lee Park.

The following day, at the “Unite the Right” rally, a confrontation with counterprotesters turned deadly when a white nationalist drove his car into a group of people, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people.

The ACLU of Virginia went to federal court and successfully defended the white nationalists’ right to protest in Emancipation Park after city officials sought to move the rally.

On Sunday, Virginia officials sought to distance the civil rights organization from the hate stance of its clients.

“Virginia’s monuments and memorials to Confederate war figures must go,” the ACLU of Virginia stated in a news release. “Regardless of origin or historical context, today they are inciteful symbols of hatred and bigotry to which white supremacists are drawn like moths to a flame.

“The repulsive vitriol and penchant for violence of such individuals and groups are unwelcome in Virginia, and our communities should be able to decide for themselves that they no longer wish to harbor those symbols and invite future threats to public safety.”

The organization then outlined a series of steps to initiate such action, including calling for money to be removed from the state budget that supports and cares for Confederate monuments and memorials on public or private property.

It also called for state law to be changed to remove the prohibition on localities from removing monuments for war veterans.

For decades, the ACLU has defended hate groups on the grounds that they have a constitutional right to free speech. Waldo Jaquith of Charlottesville resigned from the ACLU of Virginia board when the organization took the case of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis,” he said in a tweet Aug. 12.

Just three days after the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Mr. Romero filed a blog post to “Speak Freely,” the national ACLU’s site, outlining reasons the organization defended the free speech rights of “Unite the Right” rally organizer Jason Kessler.

First, Mr. Romero said the ACLU rebukes the “ideology of white supremacists,” but said the organization has always stood for First Amendment rights for all.

The ACLU believes “democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views,” he wrote.

However, he also stated that the First Amendment “cannot be used as sword or shield to justify or rationalize violence.”

However, on Aug. 17, Mr. Romero announced the organization’s policy change in an article published in the Wall Street Journal.

“If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them,” he told the publication. “They can find someone else.”