A.C.L.U. vs. the Spirit of the Law

The ACLU needs to get better at understanding law—not just the letter. It needs to understand the spirit.

As ex-ACLU board member Waldo Jaquith puts it: What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. 

Letter vs. Spirit

You’re driving your car. It’s 3:00 a.m. The road you’re on is in the middle of nowhere, an open plain ahead of you as you descend down a hill to an intersection where a stop sign instructs you to stop. 

Why does it want you to stop? What’s the objective? Well, under normal driving conditions (that is, at least some level of congestion on the road), the objective is safety. That stop sign is there to make sure you don’t get plowed into by another vehicle, and that you don’t do the plowing, either.

But in our scenario, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, what’s the objective of the stop sign? There isn’t another vehicle for miles in any direction. So… do you stop? Or do you just take a quick look around and keep on truckin’, as it were?

The Letter of the Law

Let’s say you believe in the letter of the law. You stop. Okay, so a little time is lost, a little gas is wasted, and you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. No harm done, and sticklers are gratified.

The Situation

Now let’s change the scenario, just a little. You’re back on that downhill slope. You see nothing ahead of you but the stop sign. Suddenly, in your rearview mirror, you’re nearly blinded by the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler, and then you’re nearly deafened by the sound of the driver leaning on his horn as the massive vehicle hurtles toward you with increasing speed.

The Spirit of the Law

This is a situation. Everything is a situation. Life requires us to use our brains rather than follow dogmatic laws and rules blindly. If you obey the letter of the law in the second scenario and stop at that stop sign, with the truck overtaking you because it has lost its brakes, will the objective of safety be met, or will you and possibly the truck driver as well die a grisly, horrible death?

The U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens freedom of speech. The term “first amendment rights” should be echoing in your brain right about now. And the ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, is a famous non-profit organization dedicated to protecting all civil liberties, including free speech, and they've been harshly criticized a number of times for their efforts (e.g., protecting the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march in Skokie, IL, forty years ago). Most recently, they defended the civil liberties of the alt-right to hold a rally in Charlottesville, VA about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

There were many factors contributing to the tragic outcome of that rally, where three people died and many were injured, including the apparent hands-off approach of local law enforcement. But it’s possible that without the ACLU’s involvement, the rally would have ended differently.

The ACLU claims to involve themselves on a case-by-case basis. If that is true, it seems to me they are still far too attached to the letter of the law. In this case, that law would be the first amendment.

In a country (i.e., the U.S.) where civil liberties are guaranteed for all citizens, including those of African descent, or those adhering to the religions of Judasim or Islam, or those whose sexual orientation or gender identity are non-conforming, or those who are women, where is the spirit of the law when one group demands the right to spew hatred and hurtle threats and brandish deadly weapons against any or all of the other groups and call it “free speech?” Where are the rights to liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for those against whom the hate “speech” and violence is aimed? 

Waldo Jaquith, a former board member of the ACLU in Virginia, resigned his position and posted this on Twitter: “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis.”

Fig leaf. The term brings scriptural references to mind. 

It’s time the ACLU got better at understanding—and standing up for—the spirit of the law, even at the expense of the letter of it.