Free Speech–Former ACLU Leader Ira Glasser Tells Us It’s Not What You Think

The long-time free-speech advocate talks about Skokie and Charlottesville, battling at the ballot box, and the Brooklyn Dodgers


Ira Glasser, national American Civil Liberties Union executive director from 1978 to 2001 and the subject of the biopic Mighty Ira (2020), remains passionate about free speech and baseball. As head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, he joined with the ACLU of Illinois in 1977 to defend the rights of American neo-Nazis to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where about half the residents were Jewish, many of them Hol-ocaust survivors. (The group won the case on First Amendment grounds, but 30,000 ACLU members quit in protest.) Glasser spoke with the Voice by phone about what’s the same, what’s different, and what he believes will and will not work in today’s hypercharged political environment. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Frank Pizzoli: How was Mighty Ira received?

Ira Glasser: Most responses were very good. People liked that we went over both social justice history with Skokie and my Brooklyn Dodgers. They were kidnapped to the West Coast, you know.

Do you feel our collective understanding of free speech is being kidnapped?

The film portrays what is the most important, often misunderstood, aspect of free speech. When we protect speech with which we disagree, we’re also protecting our own right to say what we want. Our speech is protected if all speech is protected. We don’t want to let the government exclusively decide speech issues.

That’s the lesson of Skokie back then, but what about now, what about Charlottesville in 2017?

In Skokie, we had a dozen or two protesters who were crazy and dysfunctional, upset about racial matters and expressing their anti-Semitism. By then, the KKK was dismantled. What they represented was a discredited fringe element. In Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally, we saw thousands protest who now comprise a full-fledged movement, and they were being cheered on as “fine people” by then-President Trump. What we have now is a seriously dangerous political mainstream movement.

So how does one engage with this movement? Talk across a table?

No. There are certain people you cannot talk to because they’re outside the realm of normal discourse, like the January 6 protesters. Whatever your standard is, there’s no way to change Trump, Rudy Giuliani, or Mitch McConnell.

How, then?

We must beat these opponents at the ballot box. It’s electoral politics in the raw, with all the restrictive voting laws passed or underway. Just like in the days of Jim Crow, when voting rights were all but nonexistent, we have the same impulses today, to restrict voting behavior in favor of those in power staying in power.

So as nice as “talking it through” might seem, our current situation needs more?

There are two things about “dialogue” we need to acknowledge. One—sometimes you have to write off people. They can’t be reached. Second—voting them out through a fair and honest election system is like a national dialogue with folks for whom it isn’t at all about talking through differences or reaching compromises. This is why paying attention to redistricting that is dangerously lopsided is so important. We don’t want a second round of Jim Crow.

If some people can’t be reached, then sue them, like Dominion Voting Systems has done with Rudy Giuliani over his false election fraud claims?

Sometimes that’s what is needed. That’s what courts are for, to determine the rules of the game. We need to remember that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that it is not free speech to falsely yell fire in a crowded theater. The “falsely” part is often dropped off of his most famous declaration. If there’s no fire, that’s misinformation.

Political dialogue is difficult enough without intentionally being misinforming.…

Look, in the realm of politics, what’s true and false isn’t always clear or easy to determine. But, consistently, the courts at all levels have determined that there was no whole-scale fraud on any meaningful level in the 2020 election. In this instance, our system has so far worked.

How do we accomplish a more honest political discussion when we all live in self-imposed media bubbles?

Free speech is an acquired taste. By that I mean there’s more to it than we often realize. We need to teach around the issue.

Teach what?

The difference between Democracy and Liberty. We don’t make a clear enough distinction these days, if we ever did. Democracy means that people ought to be able to vote for public officials in fair elections and make most political decisions by majority rule. Liberty, on the other hand, means that even in a democracy, individuals have rights that no majority should be able to take away. Therefore, if barred from full voting rights by a majority, then the minority’s rights are diminished. So is their free speech, when held back from voting as we see in state-level laws designed to do just that, especially targeted at minority voters.

The Bill of Rights says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” So, if the system works, and states or Congress pass laws perceived as limiting free speech, the Supreme Court can review and decide. Not even Congress can abridge freedom of speech?

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But we must consider our history. Women weren’t given the right to vote until 1920, or 129 years after the passage of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech. The Bill of Rights was in force for nearly 135 years before Congress granted Native Americans U.S. citizenship.

So, we do not have as illustrious a history around free speech as we may think?

We do not. Most of our “rights” were granted by the Supreme Court between 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education banning school segregation, and 1973, when Roe v. Wade allowed women legal access to abortion. In this period, we also established Miranda Rights when arrested, banned school-sponsored prayer, and established other standards of equality.

Joyce Carol Oates, in a tweet in January, wrote: “Today issues are not debated, just deleted.” How do we work ourselves out of a canceling culture into something sustainable?

By renewing our commitment to teaching history, civics, critical-thinking skills, so that up-and-coming generations are better equipped to understand how our system was and is intended to work. That’s for a better future. In the meantime, as I’ve said, we must beat our opponents at the ballot box.

What’s the difference between “hate” speech, that openly calls for, let’s say, white supremacism or denigrates some group—and “demagoguery,” which can have the same deleterious effects if individuals, pumped by lies and misinformation, storm the Capitol?

That’s the wrong question. It’s always a mistake to focus on the content of the speech. We should focus on who is going to be in the position of power to decide what we can say. You want Rudy Giuliani making that decision, or Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell? In that scenario, the ones making free speech decisions will not be you or me or people who are powerless, who are persecuted, who are discriminated against.

Finally, your beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.…

Once, long ago, I was interested in joining a movement to bring the Dodgers back to Brooklyn and build a new Ebbets Field. But my Dodgers are now frozen in time, today’s Dodgers aren’t mine, and the new Mets stadium looks like Ebbets Field.  ❖

Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.

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