By Joe Palazzolo
Updated Aug. 17, 2017 6:54 p.m. ET
The American Civil Liberties Union, taking a tougher stance on armed protests, will no longer defend hate groups seeking to march with firearms, the group’s executive director said.
Following clashes over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the civil-rights group also will screen clients more closely for the potential of violence at their rallies, said Anthony Romero, who has been the ACLU’s executive director since 2001.
The ACLU’s Virginia branch defended the right of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other groups under the banner “Unite the Right” to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park.
“The events of Charlottesville require any judge, any police chief and any legal group to look at the facts of any white-supremacy protests with a much finer comb,” said Mr. Romero.
The revised policy marries the 97-year-old civil-rights group’s First Amendment work with the organization’s stance on firearms, which aligns with many municipalities and states that bar protesters from carrying weapons.
“If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the decision was in keeping with a 2015 policy adopted by the ACLU’s national board in support of “reasonable” firearm regulation.
Mr. Romero said the ACLU would continue to deal with requests by white-supremacist groups and others for legal help on a case-by-case basis. “It’s neither a blanket no or a blanket yes,” he said.
Top officials at ACLU branches in California echoed Mr. Romero’s comments in a statement posted online Wednesday. “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” they said.
The move is likely to temper the criticism from members who blame the ACLU in part for clashes between white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue and counterprotesters.
For decades, the ACLU has defended white supremacists and other hate groups against government efforts to curb their speech, driven by the belief that carve-outs to the First Amendment weaken its protections for everyone.
The organization persuaded Illinois courts in 1978 that the First Amendment protected the right of the neo-Nazis to march in full uniform with swastika armbands in a Chicago suburb that was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.
Last week, the ACLU’s Virginia branch helped organizers of the “Unite the Right” protest secure a permit to assemble in a Charlottesville park where the Confederate statue has been since 1924.
City officials had sought to move the protest a mile away from the park, saying it was too small to accommodate the anticipated crowds. ACLU lawyers, representing organizer Jason Kessler, successfully argued in federal court that the city’s decision to revoke the permit for the protest at the park was based on Mr. Kessler’s “highly controversial” views rather than concerns for safety.
After an Ohio man who allegedly had expressed sympathy for Nazis barreled through a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, the ACLU was criticized on social media and elsewhere.
“The @ACLU helped enable the events in Charlottesville this weekend,” read one tweet. A member of the ACLU of Virginia’s board resigned, saying in a tweet that he wouldn’t “be a fig leaf for Nazis.”
Some demonstrators openly carried firearms, which is allowed in Virginia, but no one was injured by them. Still, Mr. Romero explained that the displays of force can suppress speech through intimidation.
The federal courts are currently split on whether the Second Amendment guarantees a right to carry outside the home. Eugene Volokh, a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles, said federal judges may deem protest areas to be sensitive places, like schools, where the U.S. Supreme Court has said governments can impose firearm restrictions.
In recent decades, the ACLU has repeatedly defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses, wear hoods and distribute fliers. In 2010, the civil-rights group filed a brief in support of a Kansas church’s right to picket military funerals.
But a new generation of ACLU members and donors, who surged to the group after the election of President Donald Trump, know the group primarily as a champion of causes typically aligned with the left, like pressing for greater immigrant and LGBT rights, and reducing criminal penalties.
Since the election, the ACLU’s membership has nearly quadrupled to 1.6 million and the group has received $83 million in online donations, said Stacy Sullivan, an ACLU spokeswoman.
In November, the ACLU solicited donations on its home page with a picture of the then president-elect and the words, “We’ll see you in court.”
Since Mr. Trump has taken office, the organization has fought the president in court over his administration’s bans on travel and refugees, sanctuary cities and other issues.
Judy Kutulas, a professor of history and American studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and the author of “The American Civil Liberties Union and the Making of Modern Liberalism,” said much of the backlash against the ACLU stems from a lack of understanding about the group’s historical mission.
“I think it’s just a misunderstanding of what the ACLU does,” she said.
Still, the ACLU’s choice of clients and positions have led to recurring fractures within the organization over the years, Ms. Kutulas said.
The ACLU’s defense of pro-fascist groups during World War II created a rift on the organization’s board, and the group’s support for relaxing campaign-finance restrictions in the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruffled staff.
About 30,000 members left the ACLU in the late 1970s, after the Illinois branch represented a neo-Nazi group that sought to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, home to thousands of survivors of the Holocaust, according to a history of the case by Philippa Strum, a fellow at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
“It turned out to be a huge surprise to many people who support the ACLU who thought of us as another liberal do-gooder organization,” said Chris Hansen, a former senior staff counsel who retired from the ACLU in 2012 after nearly four decades.
Write to Joe Palazzolo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 18, 2017, print edition as 'ACLU to No Longer Represent Armed Protests.'