"Where's the ACLU?"

A commenter on the "Creat[ing] an Atmosphere Where Students Do Not Feel Represented" thread asks, "Where's the ACLU? Right, nowhere." He then goes on to say, "Where's the ACLU? Where are the liberals? They are the ones ATTACKING this man."

Well, let's keep this in perspective. First, the ACLU's litigation arm can't do anything about this — we're talking here about a proposal to enact a student government rule. Once it's enacted, it might be challengeable, though perhaps even then the challenge would have to wait until the rule is enforced. But when it's just being talked about, neither the ACLU nor anyone else can sue.

Second, recall that I only got wind of this controversy at Boise State because Clayton Cramer e-mailed me about it. It's at least within the realm of possibility, it seems to me, that Cramer didn't e-mail the ACLU, that the ACLU's staff doesn't read Cramer's blog, and that the ACLU hadn't heard of this through other sources. (My NEXIS search for (sawmiller or "feel represented") and (bsu or boise state) revealed no newspaper references.) Even if the ACLU had heard about this, it might have legitimately concluded that it has other more pressing matters on its plate — but for now, we don't even know that the ACLU people had even heard of this matter.

Third, there's certainly no evidence that the ACLU is one of the "ones attacking this man," which is what the comment seemed to me to imply (though I suppose it's possible that the "They" refers back only to "liberals" and not both to "liberals" and the "ACLU"). And to the extent that the assertion is just a loose way of saying that the ACLU supports campus speech code, that assertion is mistaken. As I noted before, the ACLU has generally opposed campus speech code. In Iota Xi v. GMU, the first federal court of appeals case striking down college speech codes (in 1993), the ACLU of Virginia filed an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiffs, who were punished for putting on a skit in blackface. According to a Nat Hentoff column — and Hentoff has long been a vocal opponent of speech codes — the two earlier district court cases that ultimately struck down campus speech codes, in Michigan and in Wisconsin, were filed by local ACLU affiliates.

In Newsom v. Albemarle County School Bd., a 2003 court of appeals case, the ACLU backed a high school student's right to wear an NRA T-shirt (surely a "non-liberal voice[]"). For another recent example of an ACLU chapter's interceding on behalf of allegedly racially offensive speakers, see here. And the national ACLU's 1994 position statement on the subject condemns campus speech codes; I believe the national ACLU's anti-speech-code policy was adopted in 1991 (though there was a good deal of dissent within the ACLU about it, especially, I'm told, in the California chapters).

I've criticized the ACLU in the past on various matters, and I'm sure I will again; I think they're mistaken on many matters. But unfounded criticism is both itself wrong, and undermines the well-founded kind.

UPDATE: (1) Just to make explicit what I thought was implicit in "Second," but on reflection might not be clear. The ACLU doesn't just litigate but also sometimes speaks out in other ways; "First" is intended to explain why it can't litigate here, and "Second" notes one reason why it might not have spoken up.

(2) Commenter Jonathan Sawmiller -- presumably the fellow involved in the original story -- reports that "the ASBSU Ways and Means Committee indefinitely tabled the proposed Senate Bill #10," so that the restriction being discussed here "shouldn't be appearing in ASBSU code anytime soon."