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‘So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast’: Glenn Greenwald on ‘Defending My Enemy’

Growing up gay led Glenn Greenwald to question orthodoxy. It also led him to a lifelong passion and appreciation for free speech and open debate.

“Once life in some way leads you to start questioning pieties and orthodoxies, you realize how wrong pieties and orthodoxies can be,” said Greenwald during an interview for the latest episode of FIRE’s So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast. “The only real outlet for challenging them and correcting their wrongness is to have the freedom to question them and argue against them no matter how many people believe them to be true.”

Greenwald is best known as one of the journalists who coordinated the 2013 National Security Agency revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden. But before he became an award-winning journalist, he was a talented high school debater, a rabble rouser within online conservative chat rooms, and a lawyer. And not just any lawyer: a First Amendment lawyer who, as a gay man of Jewish descent, defended the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Today’s episode of So to Speak kicks off a two-part series on the topic of “defending my enemy,” which will explore why people, like Greenwald, who vehemently oppose certain ideas nonetheless staunchly defend the right of others to express them.

“If you ban bad ideas, you don’t make them go away. If anything, you probably strengthen them because now those people have a cause, they feel like they’re oppressed, they feel like they’re martyrs,” Greenwald told us. “I would much rather have bad ideas come out and breathe in the light so that they can be engaged, and critiqued, and dissected and you can change people’s minds than have those people have to hide and sort of slink in the dark where I think it becomes much more dangerous.”

The notion of “defending my enemy” was popularized by former ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, who—despite being Jewish and having fled Nazi Germany as a child—in 1977 defended the rights of the National Socialist Party of America (neo-Nazis) to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, after the local authorities blocked the march.

Neier wrote about his experience with the Skokie case, and about why it is so important that free speech advocates defend the rights of their enemies, in his seminal 1979 book Defending My Enemy: American Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, and the Risks of Freedom.

In two weeks, the second installment of our series on “defending my enemy” will be an interview with David P. Baugh, a Richmond, Virginia-based criminal defense attorney. In the late 1990s, Baugh, who is black, defended the First Amendment right of an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to burn a cross on private property in a case that ultimately made its way to the United States Supreme Court.

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