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The ACLU Explains Why They're Supporting The Rights Of Milo Yiannopoulos


Now we're going to turn to another issue on a lot of people's minds, free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has raised a lot of money, $24 million in donations in just one weekend in fact, after President Trump announced his executive order on immigration. Hundreds of thousands of people were motivated by the organization's work to defend people who were detained at airports. And then this week, the ACLU expressed support for a free speech case. This one involves Milo Yiannopoulos. He's the divisive editor of the far-right website Breitbart News, and he's said things like feminism is a cancer.

He was recently supposed to speak at UC Berkeley, but intense protests led the school to cancel the event last minute. The ACLU says no matter how much you might dislike what he has to say, it's protected free speech, and that makes some of its newest supporters upset. Joining me now to talk about this is Lee Rowland. She's a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Welcome to the program.

LEE ROWLAND: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's the case for defending Mr. Yiannopoulos in your view?

ROWLAND: Well, the case for Mr. Yiannopoulos is the same as it would be for any speaker, no matter how despicable or offensive we might find them, which is the First Amendment protects our right to speak out on matters of public concern, to talk about things that are as offensive as the things that Mr. Yiannopoulos says without censorship by the government. And ideally, as in his case, without people physically preventing him from speaking at a place where he had every right to speak.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the ACLU and you specifically, actually, have received criticism on social media about this. Does the ACLU need to do a better job explaining why it's defending him and other cases like this, where someone is committing what some would consider hate speech?

ROWLAND: Well, look, I certainly understand that, especially for many of our new members, they may be surprised by the ACLU's robust First Amendment positions, but it's certainly not new. Indeed, one of our most high-profile and controversial moments in the ACLU's history was defending the rights of literal self-proclaimed Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, a town made up largely of Holocaust survivors. What's amazing about the First Amendment is it protects us, regardless of our viewpoints, regardless of the causes we hold dear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But isn't hate speech different?

ROWLAND: There's no question that the things that Mr. Yiannopoulos says are unbelievably hateful in nature. But the phrase hate speech is a form of free speech. Again, in defending the rights of others to speak, whether or not we agree with them, we must all reach out and protect the speech that we most disagree with or else the First Amendment is just reduced to a popularity contest and has no meaning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a time like this, when the country's so divided, many see the ACLU as a check on the Trump administration. You've been at the forefront of several important battles. Are you worried that taking controversial positions like this will erode your support, especially among new members?

ROWLAND: Well, I certainly hope not. I mean, as our - as my colleagues' incredible work as of late has shown, we at the ACLU consider ourselves the first responders for the Constitution. That's a core part of our identity here at the ACLU. And look, we often say - if you disagree with us 20 percent of the time, it means you're a thinking person. If you disagree with us 50 percent of the time, you should consider coming to work for us.

So we respect diversity. No one has to fall in line with all of the ACLU's positions. But I do believe that our defense of the First Amendment is an integral part of our fight for civil rights, for equality and liberty for all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, thanks so much for being with us.

ROWLAND: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.