ACLU Now Against First Amendment, Conservatives Against Second Amendment?

Over at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), about 200 staffers have signed an open letter arguing in favor of restrictions on speech, a proposed departure from the group's long, laudable history of defending First Amendment rights, reports The New York Times:

"Our broader mission—which includes advancing the racial justice guarantees in the Constitution and elsewhere, not just the First Amendment—continues to be undermined by our rigid stance," says the letter, which a former member of the A.C.L.U.'s board, Michael Meyers, provided to The Times. About 200 staff members—the A.C.L.U. has about 1,300 full-time employees—signed onto the letter, according to a spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Vegas shooting, one of the Times' ostensibly right-learning columnists is ready to repeal the Second Amendment:

And lest you think Stephens is just an isolated squish, remember that there are a bunch of Republican congressmen jumping on a restrictionist bandwagon post-Vegas as well. Their number includes House Speaker Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.), who is now saying of a potential ban on bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire more quickly, "clearly that's something we need to look into." (UPDATE: The National Rifle Association is open to bump stock bans too.)

To be clear, the ACLU is still a long way off from formally repudiating the First Amendment, and the GOP fussing over bump stocks isn't a wholesale rejection of the Second Amendment either. But both developments are directionally alarming and worth examining more closely. Hard cases make bad law, and the fallout from the repugnant Stephen Paddock and the Charlottesville tiki torchers is offering proof that cliché today.

The position of the ACLU staffers who signed the letter is quite common: the notion that there are occasions when First Amendment rights must be overcome by concerns for safety or security. But if you believe that, you should probably not be working for an organization whose decadeslong record of absolutist defense of free speech is the thing for which it is justifiably famous. (The post-Charlottesville announcement that ACLU would no longer advocate for the speech of armed protesters was also driven by staff uprising, making this a trend of at least two.)

Likewise, conservatives who give in to the rhetoric of "common-sense gun control" for the sake of appearing compassionate are understandably responding to electoral incentives. And being answerable to constituents is something Americans should want our legislators to do on occasion! But as Brian Doherty explained in Reason last year, "You Know Less Than You Think About Guns." Even these narrowly tailored laws seem, upon further examination, to have mixed effectiveness at preventing violence at best, and occasionally generate their own harms. More vitally, even partial prohibitions on firearms and their components undercut basic understandings about where our rights begin and end.

There will be a temptation to praise both of these pushes as bipartisan, centrist compromises. But bipartisanship, centrism, and compromise are not goods unto themselves. The ACLU's ideological extremism in defense of even heinous speech is a virtue, and likewise the (admittedly more sporadic) historical GOP willingness to hold the line on Second Amendment rights.

The word ideologue is increasingly used as an insult, and with Donald Trump we are experiencing a decidedly post-ideological presidency. But compromises are functions of the starting points in the debate. And the people and institutions who offer strong, consistent, principled defenses of the most robust definitions our most basic rights—ideologues—are not the enemy. They are vital to the functioning of our political system.