Anthony Romero has one of those jobs that require you to practice what you preach. Just one week before the 9/11 attacks, he became executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the sixth director in the history of the 92-year-old civil rights organization. In the aftermath of 9/11, Romero, the first Latino and first openly gay man to lead the ACLU, also led efforts by the organization to defend people on both sides of often-emotional debates on religion and prejudice. Romero, 47, spoke last month at the Tufts University Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture Series on the threat political correctness poses to free speech rights.
Q. Part of the title of your Tufts talk was “Sticks and Stones.” Why?
A. Well, we live in a culture in which words carry great weight. And people very easily get offended. And I would never suggest that words cannot be offensive, but there is a line that we must not cross in terms of how much we allow words to offend us. When we allow them to be so offensive that we make efforts to silence them, then we’ve crossed a line.
Q. When you travel the country and meet new people, what is your impression of the biggest threat to free speech today? I ask that, knowing that you focused on political correctness in your talk. But give me an example of that threat that hits close to home.
A. I’d say in addition to political correctness, what I’m struck by sometimes is hypocrisy. Even the fiercest advocates of free speech — or people who claim to be — sometimes find themselves objecting [to] what someone says on the opposing side of their argument. And often when you push people to explain why they object, they don’t have a good reason beyond considering the other side grossly wrong or inaccurate. And that’s the thing about free speech: It includes inaccurate people, too.
Q. What would be the most glaring example of you, of the ACLU, defending someone or some group that you found objectionable?
A. That would have to be [pastor] Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church. They’re the religious group that travels the country protesting at military funerals and holding up signs with slogans like “God hates fags.” We sued on their behalf in 2006, after they were illegally blocked from staging their protests. I often use our defense of this group as an example to people of the importance of embracing free speech in the most literal sense. There was and is nothing I agree with Fred Phelps on. But he deserves his right to say what he will.
Q. Do you ever find people who assume that the ACLU is a liberal political organization and therefore find themselves frustrated when the organization defends the likes of Phelps?
A. Yes, and I remind them that we live in a digital age, where more and more people are going to speak their minds. The volume of speech and thought on the Internet and in social media is tremendous. It’s simply not right or possible to stop people you find objectionable from saying what they want to say. Also, you have to consider this: Banning someone from speaking out publicly because their language is distasteful or even hateful only makes sense if you disagree with what they’re saying. We cannot and should not be hypocrites about this.
Q. What is the most conflicting case or situation the ACLU has taken sides on under your leadership?
A. Assisting in the legal defenses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay through the John Adams Project. We didn’t work on that alone, but the project was aimed at helping military defense lawyers get the resources they need to properly defend their clients. People object, because terrorism is a painful memory for most of us. But that doesn’t mean that these accused men — not convicted, accused — being held on what amounts to US soil don’t deserve proper defenses. To not give them that is to in effect silence them.Interview was edited and condensed. James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.