How Could You Represent Someone Like Milo Yiannopoulos?

How free speech protections fuel civil rights movements.

Milo Yiannopoulos trades on outrage. He is a professional provocateur who has turned insulting different groups of people into a specialty.

He has claimed that the very existence of transgender people is the product of delusional thinking. He has compared Black Lives Matter activists to the KKK. And he has fostered both anti-Muslim bias and disdain for women in one breath, characterizing abortion as "so clearly bad for women's health that it falls second only to Islam.”

Here at the ACLU, we vehemently disagree with Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views. We work hard, every day, with the very communities he targets, to fight for equal rights and dignity for all. We recognize that his words cause grievous pain to many individuals, their families, and their loved ones. Speech like his hurts.

Yet even though we know how wrong-headed Mr. Yiannopoulos’ speech is, the ACLU today filed a lawsuit to defend his free speech rights.

Say what?

We did not take this decision lightly. We understand the pain caused by Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views. We also understand the importance of the principles we seek to defend.

The constitutional principle here, of course, is that government can’t censor our speech just because it doesn’t like what we say. But we’re not representing Mr. Yiannopoulos just out of an abstract principle. We’re also representing him because free speech is crucial to progress in civil rights movements.

Without free speech protections, all civil rights advocacy could be shut down by the people in power, precisely because government doesn’t agree with the ideas activists advance. That was true of the civil rights fights of the past, it’s true of the movements facing pitched battles today, and it will be true of the movements of the future that are still striving to be heard.

The case we filed today is a good illustration of what we mean. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a government agency, prohibits any advertisements on its trains or buses that attempt to “influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.” Enforcing that rule, the WMATA told the ACLU that we couldn’t put up ads that show the text of the First Amendment (yes, really) in English, Spanish, and Arabic. It also refused ads from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urging people not to eat meat and another one from Carafem, a non-profit that provides abortion care and family planning services. In Mr. Yiannopoulos’ case, it pulled ads for his book from its trains after passengers complained.

That’s quite a range of views that government decided to silence — from an organization promoting free speech, another advocating for reproductive health care, another urging protection of animals, and another peddling what the ACLU believes to be anti-trans, anti-Black, anti-woman, and anti-Muslim views. That speaks to a core premise of the First Amendment: If government can shut down one of those views, it can shut down all of them. And that would make it harder for any of us to engage in debate with the public and to try to change people’s minds about the issues that are dearest to our hearts.

Protecting the First Amendment rights of all of these speakers is crucial to the ability of civil rights movements to make the change we need to make. When we’re talking about oppressed groups espousing what are often minority viewpoints, the danger of being censored is not just theoretical, it happens all the time. Fighting against that censorship is part of how we ensure that the voices of the marginalized do not disappear from public view.

Consider the movement for LGBT rights. In 2010, a Mississippi high school student, Constance McMillen, wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom and wear a tuxedo. Both acts were inherently expressive, communicating that she’s a lesbian and challenging gender norms. The school said no, asserting they needed to protect other students from these “disruptive” statements. But a lawsuit we brought under the First Amendment ensured Constance could attend prom — as her true self.

In Delaware, Kai Short knew he was male from an early age, despite being assigned female at birth and given a traditionally female name. While incarcerated, the state barred him from legally changing his name, but he argued that the First Amendment protected his right to do so. Delaware ultimately changed the law, allowing Kai to be recognized as his authentic self.

If government can shut down one of those views, it can shut down all of them.

The First Amendment has also repeatedly ensured that advocates could organize and get their messages of protest out in support of the civil rights movement. The Supreme Court relied on the First Amendment when it ensured that the NAACP could disseminate its message through an economic boycott of racist businesses in Mississippi. And when Alabama tried to intimidate NAACP members — and effectively destroy the NAACP itself — by subpoenaing its membership records and exposing its members to retaliation by the state, the First Amendment shut it down.

The fight for women’s rights has also relied on free speech protections. When Virginia made it a crime to publish an ad stating, "Unwanted Pregnancy – Let Us Help You. Abortions are now legal in New York," it was the First Amendment that protected the right of the public to receive such information. And in litigation now ongoing, it is the First Amendment that enables us to challenge an Indiana law prohibiting abortion providers from telling teens seeking abortions without parental consent about their options in other states.

I could go on, but you get the point. In each of these cases, the Constitution's guarantee that we can speak our minds, regardless of what the government thinks about our views, has been crucial to our ability to be out about who we are and what we believe, to share our stories, and to build public support for our equality, dignity, and survival. Allowing government the leeway to "protect" others from our views silences us. And silence means an end to the progress we have been making across a wide range of issues, all over the country.

Some people may say that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ offensive speech sets him apart and doesn’t deserve to be defended. But the sad reality is that many people think that speech about sexuality, gender identity, or abortion is over the line as well. They’ll say that abortion is murder, civil rights advocates are criminals, or LGBT advocates are trying to recruit children into deviant and perverse lifestyles. If First Amendment protections are eroded at any level, it's not hard to imagine the government successfully pushing one or more of those arguments in court.

That means that we, as a country and a community, have to put up with a hefty dose of pain from people like Milo Yiannopoulos. But ask Constance McMillen, the NAACP, and women across the country if the First Amendment has advanced their equality. We think so, which is why we need to keep protecting it.

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Todd

"We understand the pain caused by Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views. "

No, I don't think you do. Lets say, as an example, Milo continues to lie and demonize people. Other people hear him and think what he says it actually true so they go out and do it more and so on. And some other people decide to really harass someone through their speech with constant lying and vocal harassment. And this someone, already a minority because lets face it people like Milo like to punch down, is already feeling picked on and isolated. The harassment gets so bad, just from this 'free speech', that they in a state of desperation decide to commit suicide and successfully do it.

Was that one life worth having Milo be able to lie consistently to the point it leads to this? Is it worth having a first amendment built upon the graves of the innocent and the suffering of their families? I wouldn't be able to look people in the eye and tell them that they have to suffer through being lied about and harassed by it because we need to give Milo a platform to lie about them.

It must be strange and hard for you to understand that other countries have hate speech laws yet do have free speech. Perhaps you should look into it.

Anonymous

Membership canceld. Thanks for heads up.

Wilson Zorn

I totally support the ACLU here and don't find it at all surprising that Milo Yakisobaworthlesscrap is getting the support that all citizens should get in fighting for free speech. The idea we should censor speech simply because it is hate-filled or even simply inconvenient to see is far more repugnant than hate-filled speech itself.

Anonymous

For critics of the ACLU, here is another angle: the "goal" of the ACLU is a constitutional "rule of law" model of government where nobody is above the U.S. Constitution and constititutional laws.

Based on centuries of history, women, African-Americans, LBGT folks, immigrants and other minorities are disproportionately harmed by a non-rule of law system. White males will be the minority group in less than 30 years. In other words every American benefits from a constitutional "rule of law" system that protects all of us in 2017 or 2047.

Unforetuneatly today, we have a faction-vs-faction system or tribalism not a rule of law system. If we are ever going to get closer to the Framer's vision of a constitutional "rule of law" system we have to tolerate legal First Amendment activities which protects unpopular and even offense speech of offensive people and move away from tribalism faction-vs-faction. If we ban this American's First Amendment exercises what about Americans that preach Martin Luther King's message or any other speaker?

Anonymous

Sorry ACLU. You are making a decision to represent this guy. You were not forced to. You made the wrong one. I can no longer support and donate to the ACLU, although I have for over 20 years. You crossed the line.

Mike

The same group that came to Charlottesville is coming to my neighborhood. At what point does public safety trump free speech? Is coming to a diverse neighborhood with torches and shouting hate similar to yelling fire in a theater? If you are carrying weapons is it a threat of violence?
When does it become incitement to riot?

Anonymous

MILO is a HERO of Free Speech .. No such thing as Hate Speech as that is a matter of opinion. My opinion is Clinton if full of HATE .. but will allow her right to speak.

Anonymous

The ACLU has been scapegoated so many times, they could open a goat farm with pastures on the left, right, and center.

Anonymous

Milo Yiannopoulos wrote "WELCOME TO THE TRUMPENREICH" on election night. The day after Heather Heyer was killed, Yiannopoulos wrote on Facebook that "Liberals asked for this" and that he has no sympathy. Yiannopoulos is a British man who canvassed successfully to recruit young voters for Donald Trump under false pretenses that he supports gay rights, which he has proven he does not. You discussed many of his other sick words above.

The ACLU stands for free speech. At the same time, you are being exploited by Milo Yiannopoulos and he is not only laughing his way to the bank, but he is advertising his wins with organizations such as yours in such a way as to recruit more supporters, more money and more Trump and white supremacy support. I understand that you feel obligated to commit resources to protecting his livelihood. Those will not be my resources. Please take me off your solicitation mailing list.

Anonymous

I first joined ACLU after I learned about your defense of the marchers in Skokie. I was impressed when you defended the NJ Trump supporter who wanted to display a lawn sign. And I strongly support your decision to defend Mr. Yiannopulos, as much as I disagree with what he says. You are truly non-partisan, which strengthens your claim to being true civil libertarians.

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