Do you have a minute to talk about idiocy? (The ACLU, WBC, and gay rights)

March 14, 2013 ACLU, In The News, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (1) 449


Call me partial, but articles like this get my blood boiling. You can read the whole thing at that link, but here’s a summary: John Featherman, writing for, doesn’t believe the ACLU should promote themselves as defenders of gay rights, because the ACLU defended the free speech rights of Westboro Baptist Church in court.

Here’s a sample:

“[ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold] Walczak started out by telling me, “The ACLU defends everyone’s rights and strongly believes that no one is free unless everyone is free. If government has the power to squelch Phelps it has the power to censor other unpopular groups, with the LGBT community being an unfortunate and frequent target.” Walczak later added, “ Just as the ACLU’s defense of abortion protesters doesn’t undermine our commitment to a woman’s reproductive freedom and representing the KKK doesn’t compromise our dedication to racial justice, defending Phelps’ free-speech rights is consistent with our LGBT-rights work.”

I don’t know. I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m just not sophisticated or hip enough to see how you can represent the interests of opposing parties at the same time. To me, a former candidate for political office, that’s like taking money from a donor and then turning around and giving it to their worst enemy. In my world, you just don’t do that.”

So, first of all… WBC is the LGBT community’s worst enemy? Really? Not the politicians who want to prevent us from marrying the people we love, and put us in jail for having sex? Not the religious leaders who incite violence against us, and push foreign nations to legalize the execution of gays? Not the fake psychologists who claim electroshock treatments and solitary confinement can turn gay children straight?

No, those aren’t our worst enemies. People who say nasty things about us. They’re our worst enemies.

I’m always shocked when it isn’t obvious to otherwise-literate individuals why absolute freedom of expression is so important. If the government can censor those we find disagreeable, what’s to stop them from censoring us too?

It’s particularly ironic in the gay community, where it’s surprisingly common to find people who think “hate speech” should be illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Were it not for the absolute right to free speech, there would be no gay rights movement, no marriage equality, no partner benefits or adoption for same-sex partners. Without free speech, those first gay-rights protesters fifty years ago would have been fined, imprisoned, and silenced. Without freedom of association, anyone who walked into a gay bar might legally have been imprisoned. Rather than slowly and steadily growing to become a political force in America, the movement would have died before it ever got started.

…and it doesn’t take a lot of studying to learn that, without the ACLU, Americans wouldn’t likely have those rights. In terms of enforcement, we really didn’t have those rights until the ACLU started arguing for them in court. Or do you think there were a lot of people in the Wild West citing the Bill of Rights as a defense against the local sheriff?

So how dare the ACLU go around claiming they defend gay rights? All the ACLU has done is spend 90 years filing lawsuits, and lobbying in various legislative bodies, on behalf of LGBT rights. All the ACLU did was file and argue Lawrence vs Texas, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled states could not outlaw consensual sex between same-sex adults. All they did was win the right of same-sex couples in Florida and Alabama to adopt children, and take the lead in fighting Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell, and file the lawsuit that may potentially end DOMA this year and take us that much closer to nationwide marriage equality. All the ACLU is done is, in the words of Dan Savage, “come down like ten tons of shit” on school boards nationwide when they violate the rights of LGBT students. Take a second to read that article, and note that Dan Savage–who is an actual gay activist–ends it by recommending a donation to the ACLU.

But John Featherman, who is annoyed by the ACLU canvassers he bumps into in Center City Philadelphia, says the opposite. Because he doesn’t like what the Westboro Baptist Church has to say, and he thinks it ought to be illegal, and the ACLU disagrees. He even finds one other Philadelphian, who I guess is an expert because he’s openly gay, who feels the same way.

All I can think reading this article is that the reason this country needs the ACLU is because of people like John Featherman, who believe people who say nasty things about him are his “worst enemies.” He believes the government should strip free speech rights from people or groups he finds disagreeable–believes it so strongly, in fact, that he writes opinion columns discouraging people from supporting one of the most effective gay-rights organizations in America, because they also disagree with him.

I spent more than enough time at the ACLU to give my personal assurance that no one there “supports” the Westboro Baptist Church. What they support is the right of every individual or organization in the United States to freely exercise their right to free speech. The ACLU believes it is not the place of the government to decide what people can and cannot say, no matter how horrible or offensive their words may be. The ACLU believes the best response to offensive speech is more speech.

Anyone at the ACLU can tell you that usually, the best way to handle offensive speech is to let the speaker keep going, and eventually he’ll destroy his own credibility. John Featherman ought to understand that concept, since he’s provided such a strong illustration.

Incidentally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this the way Dan Savage did and recommend a donation to the ACLU.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: