Coming late into the legislative game, this week the Virginia Technology Alliance for Public Safety (VATAPS), a group funded by and representing the interests of the unmanned aerial systems industry, issued a press release urging the Governor Bob McDonnell to veto drone legislation in the name…
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU) sent a letter to the Fairfax County School Board thanking the Board and Superintendent for upholding free speech in two recent cases: a parent’s attempt to have a book removed from the curriculum; and a request that a community group be denied permission to use school property for a controversial meeting. The school division denied the requests in both instances.
As is often the case, the ACLU’s support for the Board’s decision to allow a controversial group to use school facilities drew criticism from some who believe that “hate speech” should be not be sanctioned in any way. One critic was particularly offended that the ACLU would support the right of a person whose views are anti-Muslim to speak in a public school facility.
Since 9/11 the ACLU, nationally and in Virginia, has been one of the major voices against anti-Muslim discrimination, and we shared our critic’s disgust with the abhorrent views of the proposed speaker and the group she represents. Nonetheless, the principle of equal access to public property, even for people with abhorrent views, has its foundations in the US and Virginia Constitutions, and it is a principle we are obligated to protect as guardians of everyone’s civil liberties regardless of our agreement or disagreement with their views.
The First Amendment protection of free speech is based on several important premises. First, government must not be allowed to decide what speech has value and what speech is worthless. When government gets to make these choices, free expression and free thought are diminished. For example, our government has in the past tried to restrict ideologies that it finds distasteful or dangerous, such as communism, ban books that it finds obscene, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and deny parents the right to teach their children the parents’ native language. These cases illustrate why government should not be given the role of deciding what speech will be allowed.
Second, the First Amendment presumes that the best way to reach the truth is for all competing ideas to be spoken and heard. Thus, when voices are raised in support of racism or homophobia, the best remedy is for proponents of freedom and equality to raise their own voices.
In order for these free speech ideals to be realized, people of all viewpoints – even the most vile — must be allowed equal access to public property. When a public school division like Fairfax opens up its facilities to community groups, free or for a fee, it creates a public forum, similar to the streets and parks, in which equal access is required, regardless of viewpoint.
As the national ACLU has written,
Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU’s successful defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and ’70s.
The indivisibility principle was also illustrated in the case of Neo-Nazis whose right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1979 was successfully defended by the ACLU. At the time, then ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in Hitler’s concentration camps during World War II, commented: “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened.”
In our view, the “cure” for bigotry is not suppression of bigoted speech; it is doing the hard work of building communities where diversity, tolerance and acceptance are valued and embraced, and bigotry has no safe harbor.
Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director of the ACLU of Virginia, describes in a new post on the ACLU’s blog how religious or faith-based groups that appear regularly before the General Assembly (e.g., the Family Foundation, the Independent Baptists and the Catholic Conference) are arming their multiple lobbyists with new rhetoric in their effort to advance legislation that will impose one set of religious beliefs on everyone:
“For years, representatives of Virginia religious organizations and faith-based groups have sought passage of legislation of varying sorts – for example, restrictions on access to birth control or state-sanctioned school-sponsored prayer— explicitly acknowledging that such legislation is intended to enact their religious beliefs and values into law and override the beliefs of others. That strategy has been largely unsuccessful in the court of public opinion and in the courts of law. So, the new thing is that similar initiatives are not being described honestly as seeking to codify the religious beliefs of their advocates, but as laws needed to protect religious liberty or free speech.
As long-time advocates for both First Amendment freedoms, however, the ACLU of Virginia knows the difference between laws intended to elevate or establish one religion over others and laws intended to protect the right of all people voluntarily to speak freely about their beliefs. We also know the difference between a law designed to permit discrimination and one designed to protect everyone’s right to practice his or her faith without government restriction.”
For more on this trend and a description of the bills now pending before the General Assembly that are religious establishment clause bills dressed in new ball gowns, or sheep’s clothing, read more of Elizabeth’s blog post at https://acluva.org/10939/a-wolf-in-sheeps-clothing/
Concern about the possible use of unmanned aerial surveillance by the government to monitor the activities of Americans is universal and crosses partisan and other normally impermeable political boundaries.
Today the ACLU of Virginia and Delegate C. Todd Gilbert (R Woodstock) announced that they will work together on legislation to regulate the use of drones in the Commonwealth.