Free Speech

Protecting free speech means protecting a free press, the democratic process, diversity of thought, and so much more. The ACLU has worked since 1920 to ensure that freedom of speech is protected for everyone.

Free Speech issue image

What you need to know

1920s
Since the 1920s, the ACLU has been involved in virtually all of the landmark speech cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
1933
A nationwide ban on "Ulysses," a novel by James Joyce, was lifted in 1933 following an ACLU challenge.
1997
In a landmark 1997 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU’s argument that the Internet itself is a free-speech zone.

What We're Focused On

What's at Stake

“Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”

—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut

Freedom of speech, the press, association, assembly, and petition: This set of guarantees, protected by the First Amendment, comprises what we refer to as freedom of expression. It is the foundation of a vibrant democracy, and without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither away.

The fight for freedom of speech has been a bedrock of the ACLU’s mission since the organization was founded in 1920, driven by the need to protect the constitutional rights of conscientious objectors and anti-war protesters. The organization’s work quickly spread to combating censorship, securing the right to assembly, and promoting free speech in schools.

Almost a century later, these battles have taken on new forms, but they persist. The ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project continues to champion freedom of expression in its myriad forms — whether through protest, media, online speech, or the arts — in the face of new threats. For example, new avenues for censorship have arisen alongside the wealth of opportunities for speech afforded by the Internet. The threat of mass government surveillance chills the free expression of ordinary citizens, legislators routinely attempt to place new restrictions on online activity, and journalism is criminalized in the name of national security. The ACLU is always on guard to ensure that the First Amendment’s protections remain robust — in times of war or peace, for bloggers or the institutional press, online or off.

Over the years, the ACLU has represented or defended individuals engaged in some truly offensive speech. We have defended the speech rights of communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners. That’s because the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive. Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.

Some examples of our free speech work from recent years include:

  • In 2019, we filed a petition of certiorari on behalf of DeRay Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter movement organizer, urging the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that, if left standing, would dismantle civil rights era speech protections safeguarding the First Amendment right to protest.
  • In 2019, we successfully challenged a spate of state anti-protest laws aimed at Indigenous and climate activists opposing pipeline construction.
  • We’ve called on big social media companies to resist calls for censorship.
  • We’re representing five former intelligence agency employees and military personnel in a lawsuit challenging the government’s pre-publication review system, which prohibits millions of former intelligence agency employees and military personnel from writing or speaking about topics related to their government service without first obtaining government approval.
  • In 2018, we filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the NRA’s lawsuit alleging that the state of New York violated its First Amendment rights should be allowed to proceed.
  • In 2016, the we defended the First Amendment rights of environmental and racial justice activists in Uniontown, Alabama, who were sued for defamation after they organized against the town’s hazardous coal ash landfill.
  • In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief arguing that the police violated the First Amendment by ejecting an anti-Muslim group called Bible Believers from a street festival based on others’ violent reactions to their speech.

“Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”

—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut

Freedom of speech, the press, association, assembly, and petition: This set of guarantees, protected by the First Amendment, comprises what we refer to as freedom of expression. It is the foundation of a vibrant democracy, and without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither away.

The fight for freedom of speech has been a bedrock of the ACLU’s mission since the organization was founded in 1920, driven by the need to protect the constitutional rights of conscientious objectors and anti-war protesters. The organization’s work quickly spread to combating censorship, securing the right to assembly, and promoting free speech in schools.

Almost a century later, these battles have taken on new forms, but they persist. The ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project continues to champion freedom of expression in its myriad forms — whether through protest, media, online speech, or the arts — in the face of new threats. For example, new avenues for censorship have arisen alongside the wealth of opportunities for speech afforded by the Internet. The threat of mass government surveillance chills the free expression of ordinary citizens, legislators routinely attempt to place new restrictions on online activity, and journalism is criminalized in the name of national security. The ACLU is always on guard to ensure that the First Amendment’s protections remain robust — in times of war or peace, for bloggers or the institutional press, online or off.

Over the years, the ACLU has represented or defended individuals engaged in some truly offensive speech. We have defended the speech rights of communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners. That’s because the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive. Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.

Some examples of our free speech work from recent years include:

  • In 2019, we filed a petition of certiorari on behalf of DeRay Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter movement organizer, urging the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that, if left standing, would dismantle civil rights era speech protections safeguarding the First Amendment right to protest.
  • In 2019, we successfully challenged a spate of state anti-protest laws aimed at Indigenous and climate activists opposing pipeline construction.
  • We’ve called on big social media companies to resist calls for censorship.
  • We’re representing five former intelligence agency employees and military personnel in a lawsuit challenging the government’s pre-publication review system, which prohibits millions of former intelligence agency employees and military personnel from writing or speaking about topics related to their government service without first obtaining government approval.
  • In 2018, we filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the NRA’s lawsuit alleging that the state of New York violated its First Amendment rights should be allowed to proceed.
  • In 2016, the we defended the First Amendment rights of environmental and racial justice activists in Uniontown, Alabama, who were sued for defamation after they organized against the town’s hazardous coal ash landfill.
  • In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief arguing that the police violated the First Amendment by ejecting an anti-Muslim group called Bible Believers from a street festival based on others’ violent reactions to their speech.
a hand holding an American flag and a rainbow flag in front of the supreme court building
a crowd of people with fists in the air

Credit: Michelle Frankfurter, Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photos

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