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ACLU Under Fire for Legal Support of White Nationalist Groups

The American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates – including in Maine – are under fire from some of their own supporters. The staunch defender of free speech and other constitutional rights is taking flack for the legal support it gave to a white nationalists group’s bid to rally in a Charlottesville park.

Around the country and on the Facebook page of the Maine chapter of the ACLU, members are speaking out. Portland resident Ella Mock asked the ACLU, “When will the Nazi Rally in Portland be? When will you fight for one of my friends to be killed?”

Reached by phone, Mock said she’s been making monthly contributions to the ACLU since the presidential election. But in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, Mock says, she will end her membership.

“And to know that I have funded in part this activity is pretty terrifying honestly,” says Mock. “I have many, many friends whose lives and well being I fear for due to this action.”

Mock also says she was chagrined that on the same Facebook page that cited the group’s support for the supremacist group’s right to rally, the ACLU of Maine posted its condemnation of fliers distributed in the Boothbay area this week purporting to recruit for the Ku Klux Klan.

“The simple irony and hypocrisy that their last two posts on Facebook are ‘oh let’s cry out against these KKK fliers being distributed’ and ‘oh we have to stand by this free speech of white nationalists’ is pretty appalling,” Mack says.

Another Portland resident who was arrested last year in a Black Lives Matter protest here, Alba Briggs, called the ACLU a tool being used to spread a deadly message.

“When it supports the rights to promote genocide openly by a group of violent people,” says Briggs. “I would say they are not using their power for the right thing.”

Briggs notes this isn’t the first time the ACLU, founded in 1920, has been criticized for defending hate speech. And the organization’s position on Nazi ideology, in particular, dates back to 1934, when an internal debate on the question ended with a decision to defend Nazis’ rights to free speech. Similar debates have broken out periodically ever since.

Andy Schmidt, a Portland lawyer took to Facebook to defend the ACLU’s stance. He says that liberal-minded ACLU members would be wise to support most public speech because otherwise. government officials may may be left to define what is or is not permissible.

“We just need to recognize freedom of everyone’s speech, all the time, unless it is inciting violence,” Schmidt says. “In another time I can imagine everyone wanting to just shut down hate speech, but right now we want to be very cognizant that the people deciding what is hate speech are going to be Jeff Sessions and the Republicans in Congress. And what they see as hate speech is going to be very different than what many of the ACLU’s critics think of as hate speech.”

Local ACLU officials did not make themselves avaIlable for an interview. One ACLU staffer in Maine, Rachel Healey, emailed Thursday that there is “A lot of internal discussion and soul-searching going on right now.”

In a later email, the executive director of the ACLU’s Maine chapter, Alison Beyea, says the First Amendment should not be used as cover for violence, and that the ACLU “will no longer represent groups seeking to march with firearms when it is reasonable to believe there will be violence at their gatherings.”