The old ACLU fiercely defended Elon Musk’s definition of free speech

Free speech absolutism is no longer a progressive principle. Quite the opposite.

“We are in the business of supporting the First Amendment,” said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer David Goldberger in 1978. “We do not support the ideas of this particular organization, nor have we ever, nor will we ever.”

The “organization” Golderberger referenced was the National Socialist Party of America.


“But the issue is not the content of their views,” Goldberger insisted back then. “The question is what is the power of government to pick and choose among speakers in the marketplace of ideas?”

Forty-five years ago, the ACLU famously showed how far they were willing to go in the defense of free speech when it defended neo-Nazis’ First Amendment right to hold a rally in the heavily Jewish city of Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU won its case, yet it still was a controversial stance, even among ACLU members, many of whom left the organization over it. 

Still, for generations of progressives, that controversial position stood as a bold example of just how far liberals were willing to go to protect one of Americans’ most basic civil liberties.

In recent Twitter history, the social media platform’s overwhelmingly Democratic staff increasingly enforced a censorship regime that not only banned the speech of bona fide Nazi-style racists, but also in some cases suppressed mere news and opinion that leaned right or that defied center-left orthodoxy. This trend was made clear by Matt Taibbi’s reporting on Friday about internal Twitter communications in a story he called the Twitter Files.

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, recently purchased Twitter, vowing to dismiss the former censorship regime and allow a freer speech content moderation style, closer to the spirit of the First Amendment. Musk has already made some changes to that effect and says he will continue to make more.

Progressives are openly worried that not censoring in the way Twitter once did would open the gates to hate speech. In fact, seemingly one of their primary arguments against Musk’s very Twitter existence is that more hate speech will result.

On Friday, a New York Times report indicated that since Musk took over, Twitter has seen an “unprecedented” rise in hate speech.

For what it’s worth, Elon Musk’s intel indicates the opposite: 

Progressives took note.

Not that progressives needed a new Times story to take this position. Fearing a rise in hate speech has been at the core of their anti-Musk stance throughout, including accusing Musk of being a racist or, laughably, a “white nationalist” for presumably risking allowing such speech:

Wrap your head around this one.

Allowing most speech, something liberals used to inherently understand and defend against conservative critics, empowers dissenting critics of both the government and the establishment. As Goldberger wrote in 2020, “Central to the ACLU’s mission is the understanding that if the government can prevent lawful speech because it is offensive and hateful, then it can prevent any speech that it dislikes. In other words, the power to censor Nazis includes the power to censor protesters of all stripes and to prevent the press from publishing embarrassing facts and criticism that government officials label as ‘fake news.”

Recall, Twitter, major media and the White House categorized the since-verified 2020 Hunter Biden laptop story as fake news or “disinformation” because government officials claimed it was.

The old progressive/ACLU argument was also that in a free society, speech should be open, even to extremes, where good speech will prosper and bad speech will fail under scrutiny. Part of the liberal argument in the past was also that bad speech that was banned could potentially draw more followers as the speakers became martyrs, with the flimsiness of their arguments going unanalyzed.

BASEDPolitics’ Brad Polumbo made this point last week at Newsweek regarding Kanye West’s recent anti-Semitic media tour, “By interviewing Kanye and giving his terrible ideas an audience, hosts like Tim Pool and even Alex Jones have given Ye the opportunity to immolate his own career and credibility… actually engaging with Ye’s arguments in the marketplace of ideas has quickly allowed the public to see how terrible and empty they are.”

“The saga serves as an important reminder that when it comes to hateful speech, sunlight, not suppression, is the best remedy,” he added.

The kicker here is, Musk has since banned “Ye” from Twitter. What a pisspoor “white nationalist!” 

As someone who agrees with the old ACLU definition of free speech, I think Musk was wrong to ban the anti-Semitic rapper and Brad indicated the same position in his column. Let Ye speak and let him diminish himself and his career even more. 

Yet, even Musk isn’t the free-speech absolutist I would like him to be.

But Twitter is a private company and its owner is free to do with it as he pleases. The privacy aspect is why the First Amendment doesn’t legally apply to Twitter in the way that it did to a public Nazi rally nearly a half-century ago. The government would have to be in cahoots with Twitter for the First Amendment to apply. Taibbi’s story did reveal a troubling murkiness between political figures and the government’s reported cooperation with Big Tech, including the person who was reportedly key in censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story at Twitter who now holds an important position in the Biden administration.

Still, Musk’s private Twitter policy is far closer to First Amendment-style free speech than the former regime. Today, favoring heavy censorship and fiercely opposing free speech is clearly the broad progressive position. Even the ACLU has followed illiberal Left trends and compromised its former principles.

Former Senior Director of the ACLU Aryeh Neier said in 1978, “Everybody has a right to express their opinion anywhere in the United States and even if we find the opinion despicable, we’re going to protect their right to express it.”

What a beautiful, liberal sentiment. RIP.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for