What is the ACLU prepared to do to defend free speech on campus?

Claire Gastañaga is the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. Earlier this month, she tried to speak to students at William & Mary, her alma mater, about the First Amendment on college campuses.

However, Gastañaga wasn’t able to. Left-wing students shouted her down. I wrote about this in a post called “What is William & Mary prepared to do to defend free speech on campus?”

After Gastañaga was shouted down, she issued a statement on behalf of the ACLU of Virginia. The statement declared that “disruption that prevents a speaker from speaking, and audience members from hearing the speaker, is not constitutionally protected speech even on a public college campus subject to the First Amendment” but instead is “a classic example of a heckler’s veto.” It also stated that actions on campus “that bully, intimidate or disrupt must not be without consequences. . .” and that “a public college like William and Mary has an obligation to protect the freedom of the speaker to speak. . .”

Not long afterwards, however, the ACLU chapter removed this language. The watered-down version doesn’t even mention the Constitution or the First Amendment, except in identifying the topic of Gastañaga’s suppressed talk.

Walter Olson reports on this sad development in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He cites the reporting of Ronald K.L. Collins at “Concurring Opinions.” Collins posts the original ACLU statement and highlights the portions that were edited out of the revised one.

Why was the original ACLU statement gutted? A spokesman for the Virginia ACLU told Collins: “We revised our statement based on internal feedback from our colleagues.” In other words, Gastañaga’s colleagues weren’t willing fully to back their executive director’s response — one fully consistent with what the ACLU has always stood for — to an assault on her freedom of expression.

The national ACLU is getting the same kind of internal feedback its Virginia chapter received. Olson notes that two hundred of its 1,300 staffers signed a letter earlier this month calling on the group to reconsider its “rigid stance” in favor of the freedom of speech.

Back in the day, the ACLU carved out its invaluable role through the backing of liberals who believed unflinchingly in freedom of speech. Back in the day, most liberals did.

These days, not that many liberals do. To remain viable, the ACLU has branched out into the “social justice” industry. As Olson says, it expanded its mission to encompass housing discrimination, LGBT issues, school finance, and even ObamaCare — issues with little connection to the Bill of Rights.

By doing so, it attracted a base of support for whom “social justice” trumps free speech. Without that base of support, it’s doubtful the ACLU can sustain itself. There simply aren’t enough liberals who are strongly committed to freedom of speech.

But with that base of support, the ACLU cannot sustain a single-minded devotion to civil liberties. Thus, Olson is right to suggest we need a new organization that can.

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