The first successful ACLU case at the U.S. Supreme Court was, not surprisingly, a free speech case. Also not surprising, it is a bit of an overstatement to call the case “successful”. In 1925, ACLU cooperating attorney Walter Pollack argued a criminal appeal on behalf of Benjamin Gitlow, who had been convicted of violating New York’s anti-anarchy law after he circulated a pamphlet extolling the virtues of proletariat revolution. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but in doing so it recognized for the first time that Freedom of Speech was one of the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, thus expanding the U.S. Constitution’s protection.
Now, 84 years later, we are reminded of the continuing vitality of our freedom of speech by a ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. There are those in our government today who feel that the words of Tariq Ramadan are just as dangerous as Benjamin Gitlow’s pamplets, and they used their authority to deny him entry into this country and an opportunity to teach at Notre Dame. The District Court dismissed Mr. Ramadan’s challenge, but the Court of Appeals recognized that censorship, whether in the form of criminalization or immigration decisions, has no place in our country. The lawyers and judges change, the plaintiffs and ideas change, but what has not changed is that the government may not decide which ideas are safe for the public to hear and which are too dangerous.