The president of the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that she’s willing to defend almost anyone’s right to free speech – even if that speech is being used for hate.

Brian Merlos
ACLU President Nadine Strossen said the war on terrorism has resulted in a massive erosion of civil liberties. (ALLISON GHAMAN/Daily)

Nadine Strossen delivered the 17th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom to a crowd of more than 300 at Honigman Auditorium .

Strossen began her lecture by accusing the Bush administration and Congress of allowing a massive erosion of civil liberties.

“In fact, there have been so many First Amendment casualties of the war on terror that the ACLU recently issued a special report about them,” Strossen said.

She said the government is maintaining a “surveillance society” by persecuting the press and intimidating potential government whistleblowers.

“People self-censor, not engaging in expression that might be deemed offensive by the powers that be,” Strossen said.

Strossen said controversial speech – including hateful rhetoric – should receive the same protection from censorship as all other speech.

The title of the lecture, “Defending Freedom: Even for the Thoughts We Hate,” was derived from Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court, who wrote in a dissent that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Strossen said she tries to echo this sentiment in her work.

“The ACLU strives to defend all fundamental freedoms – including First Amendment freedoms – for all people, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they believe and what they say,” she said.

Strossen and the ACLU have come under fire for their protection of hateful speech.

Recently, the ACLU has been attacked for defending the radically anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

“The ACLU certainly is constantly criticized by folks across the political spectrum for defending expression that they consider to be dangerous, evil or otherwise undeserving of protection,” Strossen said.

She said free expression ought to be protected, regardless of its content or message.

“This concept of viewpoint neutrality or content neutrality is the bedrock of First Amendment,” she said.

She said the best way to evoke change is to provide an alternative argument to persuade the opposition that they are wrong rather than censor or silence them.

She said that expressing ideas and engaging in active discussion is paramount to the progression of civil liberties.

“Both for society as a whole as well the individual, having to hear offensive and upsetting expression is the lesser of two evils,” she said. “Far worse is empowering the government or the majority of our fellow citizens to take away our freedom to make our own choices about what we see and what we hear and what we say.”

– Jana Florian contributed to this report.

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