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First Amendment News 269: Documentary coming soon: 'Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story'

Mighty Ira doc teaser image

Amid high-profile controversies surrounding free speech, racial equality, and antisemitism — and on the occasion of the ACLU’s centennial — Ira Glasser’s story is as timely and provocative as ever.

FIRE has just announced the forthcoming release of “Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story”:

The 99-minute documentary film explores the life and career of former American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director and FIRE Advisory Council Member Ira Glasser, with a particular focus on his defenses of free speech and First Amendment values.

The film will be available on streaming platforms in October, and on DVD and Blu-ray discs later this year. Members of the news media can request a screener link by contacting

Stay up-to-date with the film by visiting and by following the film on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Ira Glasser is one of America’s unsung champions of civil rights and liberties. As the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union for 23 years, he transformed the organization from a small, “mom-and-pop” operation on the verge of bankruptcy into a civil liberties juggernaut with offices in every state and a $30 million endowment. As his generation retires from the barricades, Ira reminisces on his life at the forefront of defending the rights of all Americans, from civil rights leaders to neo-Nazis.

His story takes us to his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, where in 1947 Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers broke the color barrier in baseball and inspired a generation of civil rights activists; to the offices of Robert Kennedy, where the U.S. Senator spoke with a young Ira and convinced him to take his first job with the ACLU; and to California, where a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor explains to Ira why he thinks the ACLU was wrong to defend the right of neo-Nazis to demonstrate near his home in Skokie, Illinois, over 40 years ago — and how recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, evoke painful memories.

Amid high-profile controversies surrounding free speech, racial equality, and antisemitism — and on the occasion of the ACLU’s centennial — Ira Glasser’s story is as timely and provocative as ever.

ACLU's David Cole, The NRA, & freedom of association

You may have your own opinions about the NRA, but all Americans should be concerned about this sort of overreach. If the New York attorney general can do this to the NRA, why couldn’t the attorney general of a red state take similar action against the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, or Everytown for Gun Safety?

David Cole (ACLU)
David Cole

Our democracy is premised on the right of association. The First Amendment protects not only the right to speak, but also to band together with others to advance one’s views. Making or resisting change in a democracy requires collective action, and a healthy democracy therefore demands a robust “civil society.” The right to associate can’t survive if officials can shut down organizations with which they disagree. The Supreme Court has notably invoked that right to protect union members, Communist Party adherents, the Boy Scouts and the NAACP.

That’s why two years ago, we supported the NRA’s lawsuit charging Gov. Cuomo with violating its First Amendment rights. Mr. Cuomo moved to dismiss the case, but a federal judge ruled against him, holding that if he targeted the NRA for its gun-promoting views, he violated its First Amendment rights.

And that’s why we believe [New York Attorney General Letitia] James has also gone too far. Dissolution of a nonprofit is the most extreme remedy state regulators can seek. It has historically been reserved for organizations that are essentially false fronts for personal gain.

The NRA is different. It’s been around for more than 150 years and has millions of members. It engages in a range of lawful and properly tax-exempt pursuits, including teaching gun safety, operating shooting ranges, educating the public, and lobbying for laws that protect gun rights. If some of its leaders have become corrupt, they should be removed. If its board was incompetent in checking their abuses, it should be reformed. . . .

The right to associate is a right for all, not just for those whom government officials favor.

First Amendment Salon: Floyd Abrams & Paul Clement

Clear & Present Danger Podcast: Free speech & racial justice

In May 2020, protests erupted all over the U.S. after a video emerged of a white police officer killing a black man named George Floyd. Millions took to the streets in support of racial justice under the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Most protests were peaceful, but several cities experienced large-scale violence. Free speech was also affected in the process. A disturbing number of incidents of police brutality and excessive force against peaceful protesters and journalists were documented. President Trump accused a Black Lives Matter leader of “treason, sedition, insurrection” and labelled protestors as “terrorists.”

But demands for structural change also led to calls for de-platforming people whose views were deemed hostile to or even insufficiently supportive of racial justice. A Democratic data analyst named David Shor was fired after tweeting a study that showed that nonviolent black-led protests were more effective than violent ones in terms of securing voter support. In another instance, New York Times staffers protested that the newspaper put “Black @NYTimes staff in danger” by running a provocative op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, which argued for deploying the military to quell riots. The newsroom revolt led to opinion editor James Bennet resigning.

Academia was affected too. A letter signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty members, employees and students demanded a faculty committee be established to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” and write “Guidelines on what counts as racist.”

Social media companies came under intense pressure to take a more robust stand on “hate speech.”

The entrenchment of so-called “cancel culture” caused around 150, mostly liberal, writers and intellectuals to sign an open “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter argued against what the signers saw as “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter drew sharp criticism from many journalists, writers and intellectuals for being “tone-deaf,” “privileged,” “elitist” and detracting from or even hurting the struggle for racial justice.

The wider debate often turned nasty — especially on social media — with loud voices on each side engaging in alarmist, bad faith arguments ascribing the worst intentions to their opponents. Many of those concerned about free speech warned of creeping totalitarianism imposed by “social justice warriors” run amok, intent on imposing a stifling orthodoxy of “wokeism.” Some confused vehement criticism of a person’s ideas with attempts to stifle that person’s speech. On the other hand, some racial justice activists outright denied the existence of “cancel culture” and failed to distinguish between vehement criticism of a person’s ideas and calling for that person to be sanctioned by an employer, publisher or university. Some even accused free speech defenders of being complicit in or actual defenders of white supremacy and compared words deemed racially insensitive with violence.

Underlying these debates is a more fundamental question. Is a robust and principled approach to free speech a foundation for — or a threat to — racial justice?

To help shed light on this question, this episode will focus on what role the dynamic between censorship and free speech has played in maintaining and challenging racist and oppressive societies. The episode will use American slavery and segregation, British colonialism, and South African apartheid as case studies.

Forthcoming book: Skinner-Thompson on privacy & free speech

Limited legal protections for privacy leave minority communities vulnerable to concrete injuries and violence when their information is exposed. In "Privacy at the Margins," Scott Skinner-Thompson highlights why privacy is of acute importance for marginalized groups. He explains how privacy can serve as a form of expressive resistance to government and corporate surveillance regimes - furthering equality goals - and demonstrates why efforts undertaken by vulnerable groups (queer folks, women, and racial and religious minorities) to protect their privacy should be entitled to constitutional protection under the First Amendment and related equality provisions.

By examining the ways even limited privacy can enrich and enhance our lives at the margins in material ways, this work shows how privacy can be transformed from a liberal affectation to a legal tool of liberation from oppression.

Advance Praise

'This is an enormously important book about a crucial aspect of privacy law that has been overlooked: the way in which it affects historically discriminated against individuals. Professor Skinner-Thompson focuses on privacy for our public actions and for information about us and examines how this affects marginalized communities. His treatment of this topic is stunning in its originality, its clarity, and its insightful proposals for change.' Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

'Privacy at the Margins makes a significant contribution in helping us understand the importance of privacy for equality for the most vulnerable among us. It pushes legal conceptions of privacy in new ways, reframing privacy as expressive resistance to the powerful and as indispensable to equality of opportunity. It is thought-provoking, creative, and an important must read.' Danielle Keats Citron, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law and Vice President, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative


Forthcoming scholarly article

This Article is about the tension between liberty and equality. It examines this tension in the context of disputes over Free Speech and LGBT rights. In our modern Civil Rights Era, the social and legal climate has become increasingly intolerant of bullying, embraced liberal sexual and gender norms, and sought to institute formal equality for formerly disfavored groups. The conservative movement has responded in part by seeking refuge from progressive change in Constitutional jurisprudence, articulating theories of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments that effectively protect the status quo. Because of a receptive Supreme Court, dominant conceptions of both Equal Protection and Free Speech are informed today by libertarian ideology, reflecting a commitment to limited government oversight and regulation. A libertarian view of the Constitution, however, ensures that meaningful liberty and equality exist not for everyone, but only for some. To create a more equitable society, Constitutional interpretation must more adequately balance libertarian interests in the exercise of individual rights—like Free Speech—with the need for governmental action to promote the public good and address group-based harms.

This Article draws from the field of Critical Race Theory to advocate for an antisubordination approach in mediating competing claims of equality and liberty. Unlike a libertarian Free Speech jurisprudence that treats all speakers and viewpoints as equally worthy of Constitutional respect, an antisubordination approach to Free Speech is attentive to historical and contemporary modes of group-based oppression. Simply put, if the triumph of a Free Speech claim would enforce a status hierarchy that positions historically marginalized groups as inferior, that Free Speech claim should fail.

YouTube: Cornell West & Robert George on free speech

In a wide-ranging interview, Associate News & Features Editor Marie-Rose Sheinerman sat down with Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George and Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS’80 to discuss the two scholars’ recent op-ed in The Boston Globe, “On Honesty and Courage”. In the piece, the two long-time friends called on former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump — along with the American people — to uphold the aforementioned values during this difficult moment for our nation.

In the interview, George and West discuss the renaming of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson School; recent controversy surrounding an op-ed by Professor Joshua Katz; campus memory of the Black Justice League, a Black student activist group; historical figures the two believe ought be elevated; and the importance of diverging from mainstream perspectives, no matter the social consequences.

YouTube: Steven Pinker on limiting free speech 

YouTube: Leslyn Lewis on 'cancel culture'

Zoom event: Nossel on race and free speech 

Youtube: Zoom event on McKesson v. Doe

Join the ACS Chicago, Bay Area, Madison, and San Diego Lawyer Chapters, along with the Cook County Bar Association, for discussion on the McKesson v. Doe cert. petition requesting Supreme Court review of a 5th Circuit decision allowing suit for money damages against a Black Lives Matters protest organizer.


  • Garrett Epps, Contributing Writer, The Atlantic; Professor of Law, Emeritus, University of Oregon School of Law; Member, ACS Board of Directors and the ACS Board of Academic Advisors
  • Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and ACS Co-Faculty Advisor, University of Chicago Law School; Member, ACS Board of Advisors
  • Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law Justin Hansford, Executive Director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, Professor of Law, and ACS Faculty Advisor, Howard University School of Law

Moderated by:

  • Jerry Brown, Attorney, Siegel & Callahan, P.C.; Adjunct Professor of Law, The UIC-John Marshall Law School; Assistant Director of the Legal Legends Luncheon, ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter; Board Member, Cook County Bar Association

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