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A Display That Opposes the ACLU? We Wouldn't Object!

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February 25, 2011

The voting rights panel from the ACLU’s 90th Anniversary exhibit.

The latest manufactured non-troversy comes to us from Iowa, where some state legislators are up in arms about an exhibit marking the 90th anniversary of the ACLU, which was displayed in the State Historical Building. They’ve even gone so far as to introduce legislation that would prohibit the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs from displaying an exhibit that “promulgates an ideological point of view” unless equal time is given to the opposing view. (Apparently Iowa has handled all the problems our 49 other states are facing, and this was the next most important issue on the list.)

The proposed law is just silly. Every representation of history expresses a point of view. To require that each and every viewpoint in an exhibit be simultaneously counterbalanced with an opposing view is, at best, difficult, but likely impossible. Would the museum’s woolly mammoth display need to be countered with information on creationism, as Department of Cultural Affairs Chief Mary Cownie has suggested in her objection to the law? Would an exhibit celebrating Iowa’s agricultural history also have to include information about displaced Native Americans, the negative environmental impacts of large scale farming, poor labor and safety conditions in slaughterhouses and cruelty to livestock perpetuated by the farming industry?

We agree with the The Des Moines Register, which said in an editorial:

“Some may disagree with causes the ACLU has championed, but no one could argue the organization has not had a significant impact on American history and culture. The display highlighting some of its many battles is perfectly proper history to be presented to the public in a state historical museum.

If someone proposes a display presenting a countervailing point of view on those issues, all the better. That exchange of ideas and viewpoints is something the museum should encourage.”

Exactly. If state legislators are upset with the viewpoints expressed in our travelling exhibit, they should propose exhibits that explore other viewpoints, not impose an impossible standard on all exhibits to be 100 percent viewpoint neutral. As we’ve long said, the answer to speech with which you disagree is MORE speech, not less.

Or as Ben Stone, director of the ACLU of Iowa, put it, “I guarantee the ACLU would not object to a display of something that we disagree with. That’s the American way.”

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