The ACLU “evolves” on speech rights

By Walter Olson


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In McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court will reconsider its 2000 decision in Hill v. Colorado, which upheld a law prohibiting (among other things) leafleting and some other forms of peaceful protest within 100 feet of an abortion facility. (Massachusetts in 2007 passed a similar law which is now under challenge.) Noted civil libertarian Floyd Abrams, writing in the WSJ, sees the case as a straightforward one of supporting free speech for a position with which he happens to disagree. But the ACLU, Abrams notes, has changed its position between the earlier case and this one, and in a speech-unfriendly direction:

In a friend-of-the-court brief in Hill, the ACLU argued that because the Colorado statute “burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to accomplish the state’s goal,” the statute was facially unconstitutional. When the 2007 statute was proposed in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts ACLU opposed it, stating that “[i]f the message is unwelcome, as it often will be outside abortion clinics, the constitutionally appropriate response in a public forum is for the listener to walk away.”

But now that McCullen has reached the Supreme Court, both ACLU groups have switched sides. Their position, their brief states, has “evolved over time” and the Massachusetts law is, after all, constitutional on its face. Of course, the First Amendment has not changed in the 14 years between the filing of the ACLU briefs in Hill and McCullen; the ACLU has.

The old ACLU got it right.

Tags: ACLU, free speech, Supreme Court

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