Ira Glasser and the progressive case for free speech

August 3, 2018

I’m a shamelessly partisan person. I’ve worked on Democratic campaigns, I’m the vice president of Vanderbilt College Democrats, and I once paid over $100 to see a live taping of Pod Save America, a podcast hosted by former Obama staffers (worth it). Friends, acquaintances, and strangers have all asked me why I wanted to work for an organization that defends all speech, rather than a more partisan cause that I support, like economic equality or women’s reproductive rights. Until this weekend, I didn’t quite have a coherent answer beyond “freedom of speech has to be for everyone!” — which, I’ll be the first to admit, doesn’t always change minds.

If I’ve faced this questioning after working for FIRE for only a few short weeks, I can’t imagine the kind of inquisitions that Ira Glasser, the Friday Keynote speaker at the FIRE Student Network Summer Conference, faced during his tenure at the ACLU. Glasser helmed the ACLU as executive director from 1978 to 2001. Glasser has defended the First Amendment rights of everyone, from Nazis planning to march through Skokie, Illinois to teachers attempting to teach evolution in deeply religious southern states. Glasser said that during his tenure at the ACLU he was known as two things: an advocate for racial equality, and a free speech absolutist.

At the conference, Glasser gave a compelling 50-minute presentation on the history and necessity of the First Amendment to advancing civil rights causes in America, stressing both the importance of the non-partisan nature of the First Amendment, and of defending all who have had their civil liberties violated. Here are the three lessons I took away from Glasser’s keynote:

Power, even democratic power, is an antagonist of liberty.

Glasser started his presentation by stressing the difference between democracy and liberty. Democracy, which is the power to self-govern, vote, and participate in the political process, doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with liberty, which is the protection of the rights of everyone, including minorities. Glasser stressed that governments, even democratically elected ones, often seek to infringe on the rights of those who disagree with them.

When I first started looking into the suppression of free speech on campus, I thought that in most if not all cases, the school administration was behind the attempt to suppress or censor students. In some cases, however, it is the students themselves calling for the censorship of their peers. (See, for example, Wesleyan University’s student newspaper boycott in 2015.) As Glasser noted, even democratic majorities can impose restrictions on the civil liberties of their peers in the minority.

The purpose of civil rights organizations should be to restore power to those who have had their liberty infringed upon, regardless of who they are.

The ACLU and other civil rights organizations were created to defend these liberties that are enumerated in and protected by the Bill of Rights. Glasser stressed that civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and FIRE, shouldn’t pick their cases based on prevailing political views or popular opinion. In his view, an organization can pick an issue to defend, but the “government picks the cases” by deciding who to censor. This is why FIRE is committed to being a nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the speech of all students from those who would seek to censor it. It is antithetical to the concept of civil liberties to only defend the rights of the majority.

Freedom of speech is a progressive idea.

Finally, Glasser addressed an idea that I’ve been trying to explain since even before I started at FIRE. He noted that although many perceive conservatives to be more concerned about the preservation of free speech on campus, in reality, free speech is essential to the progressive cause. All progressive and civil rights leaders have needed free speech to allow their movements to, as Glasser put it, “start, build momentum, grow, flourish, and pursue [their] ends.” Freedom of speech is the freedom to promulgate and spread the progressive ideas that I believe have allowed our society to grow; that freedom, however, cannot be limited only to those who express progressive views.

Glasser argues that the only alternative to letting those in power make censorship decisions, which are often fallible and politically motivated, is to let everyone speak. David Cole, the current national legal director of the ACLU, made much the same argument in The New York Times late last month. I for one agree with them, and will continue fighting for the rights of everyone to speak their minds long after I leave this internship.


Ira Glasser’s keynote speech is available to watch on FIRE’s YouTube channel.

Miranda Cross is a FIRE intern and a rising junior at Vanderbilt University