Former ACLU president to speak on fighting hate with free speech in New Milford

Photo of Katrina Koerting

NEW MILFORD — Nadine Strossen, a former American Civil Liberties Union president, has seen students’ growing suspicion of free speech in her own classroom and while speaking at other college campuses.

These observations, coupled with national survey results, spurred Strossen to pen her latest book, “Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship.” She discussed the topic Saturday at Temple Sholom.

Often, students consider the opposing ideas they strive to suppress as “hate speech,” but the Supreme Court has ruled the First Amendment protects the right to express the thoughts that are hated, said Strossen, who has lived in New Milford for 10 years and teaches at New York Law School.

“That’s really important if we are to have a vigorous dialogue on public-policy issues in a democracy,” Strossen said.

She cautioned that not all hate speech is protected and if the words cause serious harm or reasonable fear, then it is and should be punished.

Strossen said governments and powerful institutions shouldn’t suppress ideas they disagree with.

“It has to reside in us as individuals to determine what we want to hear and turn our backs on,” she said.

She said the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s words were seen as dangerous and hated at the time. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is also cast as “hate speech” in certain contexts.

“Liberal students on campus should have no illusions that only conservative ideas will be considered hate speech,” Strossen said.

She also said trying to prevent free speech of ideas students disagree with can amplify the speakers’ message and give that person a bigger stage. Most people didn’t know who Milo Yiannopoulos was until the alt-right commentator and former Breitbart editor’s speech at UC Berkeley was canceled following student protests.

Often, Strossen sees that students don’t fully understand free speech. In 2015, Yale University students called for the ousting of faculty members who sent an email about Halloween costumes. Last year, students prevented an ACLU official from speaking at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., about free speech.

“As an educator, I thought ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do here,’ ” Strossen said, adding that the distinction between agreeing with what’s said and defending the act of saying it is no longer recognized.

Strossen has long been drawn to issues of free speech and equality.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of individual rights and freedoms from as far back as I can remember,” she said.

Even as a young child she would question parents and teachers, ensuring there was a reasonable explanation for their directions. She’s instilling this inquisitive nature and critical thinking in her students at New York Law School.

“It’s important now more than ever with ‘fake news,’ ” she said.

Strossen has been teaching law since 1984. She started her legal career clerking for a judge in Minnesota just after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1975. She began volunteering with the ACLU as soon as she learned of the organization, continuing that work when she moved to New York City, began practicing at a law firm and became a professor.

Once she became president, her role with the ACLU switched from that of a case attorney to spokesperson and advocate, which included testifying before Congress. Like most of the attorneys working with the ACLU, she wasn’t paid for her work and so continued her teaching job.

Strossen was the president from 1991 to 2008.

She’s still an active spokeswoman and serves on the national advisory council for the ACLU, as well as volunteers for other nonprofits.

“To me the ACLU is the most important (of these nonprofits) because we do what the government should do, and that’s support all fundamental rights despite who you are and what you believe,” she said.

Strossen was the first female ACLU president, but it’s the issues the organization handled under her leadership that stand out to her more than that milestone.

The emergence of the internet in the 1990s and advocating for the same free speech protections online is one of those issues that stands out.

Some battles are still being fought, including protecting people’s rights in the fight on terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attack.

Another salient topic has been racism and mass incarceration. The ACLU coined the term “Driving While Black” to highlight that black drivers are pulled over more than drivers of other races. The organization spoke out against the Los Angeles Police Department when officers were filmed beating Rodney King, a young African American man, in 1991.

Strossen said she’s happy there’s more public support for these racial issues, but acknowledged there is still a long way to go.

“These struggles take a really long time,” she said. “On the whole, when you look at rights for all people, we’ve moved further ahead.”