Freedom of speech is squeezed on both sides | Opinion



“When I was a kid I was shy.” – Ira Glasser, longtime president of the American Civil Liberties Union, to an audience in Canton, Massachusetts

It seemed hard to believe. Non-legal and proud of it, Glasser led the ACLU from 1978 to 2001 and is credited by the organization for turning it “from a mom-and-pop style operation concentrated primarily in a few large cities. to a national center for civil liberties “.

“The first time I had to speak in public,” said Glasser, “I was teaching kids arithmetic. It taught me how to explain complicated topics to people who really weren’t interested. It all ended up being good training to talk to people about the Bill of Rights. “

The right to free speech is perhaps the best known of the First Amendment rights; it is also perhaps the most controversial. Disrespected in some neighborhoods, distorted in others, the right to speak freely has occupied much of Glasser’s career as he fought controversial battles to ensure he was both preserved and protected. against embezzlement by those who wish to undermine democracy.

On college campuses, where administrators once wielded their power to block speech about civil rights or end the war in Vietnam, self-proclaimed “progressive” students are now wielding theirs to try to block speech they claim. , deviates from what they have declared to be politically acceptable. . First Amendment legend Floyd Abrams said the biggest threat to American free speech right now comes not from government but academia, primarily “from a minority of students who strongly disapprove and, I think. that it is fair to say so, with contempt for the opinions of speakers whose worldview is different from theirs and who seek to prevent these opinions from being heard.

Glasser, a tireless fighter for social justice like any other American over the past half century, is also affected. “I was surprised,” he wrote last year of a law school appearance, “to learn that many viewers identified as ‘progressives’ and thought that it was both desirable and constitutional to ban what they called “hate speech”. “

In Trumpland, the former president invoked the First Amendment as a defense against lawsuits to hold him accountable for his role in the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol, which left 140 police injured of the Capitol and killed several people. One of the pending allegations is that he conspired with others to use force, intimidation and / or threats to prevent federal officials – Congress – from carrying out their duties: to certify the 2020 presidential election. This claim would seem not only simple, but obvious: the express and expressed purpose of the defendants’ fiery exhortations was to lead the crowds to Capitol Hill for this very purpose.

Trump and his defense team, however, argue that holding them accountable would penalize the exercise of First Amendment rights. This concern for the right to freedom of expression is indeed very rich coming from a former president who fired all the federal officials he could for exposing bad behavior in his administration, but the hypocrisy is so low on Trump’s list of affronts that she hardly seems worth mentioning.

Those who led the mob to attack Congress have a much bigger problem than hypocrisy. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that there is no First Amendment protection for speech that “aims to incite or promote illegal actions and are very likely to incite or produce such actions. “. This isn’t the first time the shy math student who wasn’t a born speaker has said it best. “Just because you use words when doing something violent doesn’t mean you have First Amendment protection,” says Glasser.

The First Amendment may be caught in the crossfire, but if we have more than a chance to keep it robust, it is in large part thanks to American heroes like Ira Glasser, who pushed, pushed and pressed to make it happen. ‘it is neither eroded nor taken for granted.

Jeff Robbins, former Assistant US Attorney and delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was the senior minority lawyer on the Senate Standing Subcommittee on Investigations. A lawyer specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Middle East.


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