Some Rights Causes Are More Equal Than Others

If you were arrested for speaking on public streets, where would you turn for help? These days, the answer may depend on what you were saying.

Suppose you were arrested for marching through the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, protesting Israeli policies against Palestinians. Unquestionably, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would support your rights, even filing suit on your behalf.

Suppose, instead, you were arrested for preaching Christianity on the streets of Dearborn. Would you ask the ACLU for help? Would it help you? Well, maybe.

Consider the four people arrested on June 18, 2010, for proselytizing passersby at Dearborn’s Arab International Festival. Certainly the ACLU agreed that the arrests had violated the missionaries’ constitutional rights. The state ACLU chapter’s legal director told the Michigan Messenger that “the man encouraging others to convert to Christianity was engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment.” But that is all. The organization did not issue any press releases to that effect, address the matter on its website, or reference it in listserv emails.

According to Brenda Bove, paralegal for the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the defendants — members of Acts 17 Apologetics — did not ask the ACLU for help. They received assistance from another organization, the Thomas More Law Center. The trial ended on September 24 with four acquittals on charges of breaching the peace.

The ACLU touts itself as “our nation’s guardian of liberty.” It has pursued a strategy of assisting society’s fringes, including its most offensive elements, on the theory that by protecting their civil liberties, it would necessarily safeguard the rights of all. Hence its advocacy for Nazis planning to march through Skokie, Illinois, a community with many Holocaust survivors. The ACLU explains, “We’re not anti-anything. The only things we fight are attempts to take away or limit your civil liberties, like your right to practice any religion you want (or none at all) … or to speak out — for or against — anything at all.”

Yet, strangely, the ACLU has said little about certain Islamist attempts to chill free speech and convert criticism of Islam into a crime, although it is outspoken about government purportedly chilling Muslims’ First Amendment rights. Former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer explains:

When the U.S. State Department condemned publication of the notorious Muhammad cartoons in 2005, and newspapers in the U.S. declined to publish them, the ACLU was virtually silent. In fact, talking points issued by the press office … recommended ducking questions about the cartoons. … Three years later, in 2008, despite a new focus on international human rights, the ACLU declined to join a free speech coalition opposing a UN defamation of religion resolution that targeted criticism of Islam.

The ACLU continues to shirk the free speech fight against Islamism by refusing to sign a petition criticizing the UN’s defamation of religion resolution as incipient censorship. Many groups have noted the danger that this declaration poses to free expression, but the ACLU has not.

More recently, certain state chapters have advocated for critics of Islam. Notably, after almost two months of demonstrating little interest in the case, the New Jersey chapter just filed suit on behalf of Derek Fenton, who had been fired from his public job for burning a Koran while off duty. But the ACLU’s national organization seems fixated on America allegedly “persecuting Muslims,” as illustrated by its numerous statements on the subject. It has issued no similar statement about persecution of Jews, for example, although the FBI’s most recent (2008) hate crime statistics indicate that ten times more religiously motivated hate crimes targeted Jews than Muslims.

Like the ACLU, Amnesty International (AI) has prided itself on evenhandedness. From its Cold War beginnings, it projected an image of impartiality by focusing on prisoners of conscience from different geographical and political spheres (communist, capitalist, and developing). More recently, however, it has shown deep reluctance to criticize radical Islam. For example, Brooke Goldstein of the Children’s Rights Institute found the group largely uninterested in jihadists’ use of children as suicide bombers.

The group has worked with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, sponsoring him on a speaking tour advocating release of detainees, despite his support for the Taliban and widespread concerns about detainee recidivism. Upset that AI was putting the rights of al-Qaeda terror suspects above those of their victims, Gita Sahgal, then head of the gender unit of AI’s international secretariat, sharply criticized the organization for associating with Begg. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment,” Sahgal said.

Sahgal went public with her criticism in February 2010, after two years of in-house warnings had been ignored. Hours later, AI suspended her from her position. On April 9, she left AI by mutual agreement due to “irreconcilable differences.”