Ira Glasser: “the right to free speech is not the right to sit in the closet by yourself and mutter.”

Ira Glasser: “the right to free speech is not the right to sit in the closet by yourself and mutter.”

Ira Glasser was Executive Director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for 23 years, and, though he is usually known more for struggling for racial justice, Glasser also often defended the First Amendment. He testified, for example, at hearings in 2000 about campaign finance legislation. Although he retired in 2001, he still speaks about the First Amendment, including during a recent long interview with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE):

If you give the government the power to ban speech, your speech is gonna be the first speech banned. The only protection minorities have and dissenters have is a rule which doesn’t allow the government to decide which speech is okay because it won’t be theirs. … And people tend to imagine that they will be the ones making these decisions, but, of course, people like us never are the ones making those decisions.

I regarded the First Amendment, not as a highfalutin doctrine of principle, but as an insurance policy, and that’s what it was meant to be. The people who wrote it and founded – two minutes after the First Amendment was passed and ratified, they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. I mean, and nobody – oh, but that John Adams saying you couldn’t criticize the president, it wasn’t the king of England so it was okay. Well, it wasn’t okay for the people who wanted to criticize John Adams, and the whole story about speech in America and anywhere really is that, as I used to sort of say half tongue in cheek, everybody is in favor of free speech as long as it’s theirs or people that they like and agree with.

The notion that by limiting the amount of money you can spend on a right doesn’t restrict the right is absurd. It’s a fantasy. I mean, if I’m at the ACLU and I want to take out a full-page ad to advance a civil liberties cause, where – I have to spend the money to buy the space in the Times. If I’m planned parenthood and I want to take out an ad advancing the right to contraception and I want to buy it at the super bowl, I have to spend money. If I want to distribute leaflets, a fundamental First Amendment right, I have to produce the leaflets. Sometimes the cost is considerable, sometimes it isn’t considerable, but you ask anybody who’s ever run a political campaign, what about buttons, what about leaflets, what about travel, what about going to – you can’t exercise your First Amendment rights without spending money, can’t be done unless you sit around like you and I in a little apartment by ourselves, nobody listening, and we have all the right to free speech we want, but –

there is no way to exercise the right to free speech in an effective way without spending money for the dissemination of that speech, without spending money to make that speech audible and visible. You know, the right to free speech is not the right to sit in the closet by yourself and mutter. It, it requires you – to be effective, it means you have to get out there and reach many, many people, otherwise the government could let you speak all you want if you only get to speak to yourself and three people that you know. It’s only when the speech gets to be disseminated that’s a problem, and there is no way to disseminate it without money.

In an electoral campaign that’s even more true, and that’s always been true. It’s not something that just became true, it’s always been true, and now what people are upset about is that the severe disproportion of wealth and money in this society creates a severe disproportion of speech. They are upset about that, but giving the government the power to restrict speech is not the answer.

What world are they living in when they think that you can carve corporations out without even distinguishing between the corporations you hate and the corporations you support, and think that the Constitution doesn’t apply to them. So, what does that mean? Does that mean if the FBI wants to walk in and rummage around in the ACLU files it can. That they can go into Planned Parenthood’s office and search without a warrant, that they can suppress our speech because they – it’s not – that’s not a fantasy, they did it. That’s what the campaign finance laws have been. If you look at the case law, that’s who the government goes after. It goes after the centers.


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