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The ACLU has been a liberal darling. Charlottesville may have changed that

  • The ACLU has condemned violence at a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
  • It has defended protesters' right to march under the First Amendment.
  • The ACLU supported Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in court after city officials tried to revoke his protest permit.
A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counter protesters, calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images
A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counter protesters, calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been a beacon for liberal causes going back decades, and especially since the 2016 election. Now it's drawing scorn for defending white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The ACLU is a nonprofit organization that defends and advocates for people's constitutional rights. The organization's mission has steered it into controversial areas such as gay rights and immigration laws.

The ACLU has condemned violence that left one person dead on Saturday. But it defended white supremacists' right to march under the First Amendment. And people are not happy.

One tweet in a thread the ACLU shared on Sunday said:

The tweet has received almost 1,000 replies. Some people said they are done donating to the ACLU. Some expressed outright dismay at the organization's stance. Others insisted the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville shed First Amendment protections when they carried torches and weapons.

The ACLU did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe suggested earlier this week the violence would not have occurred if not for the ACLU. The group represented Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in a lawsuit against the city.

Officials tried to revoke Kessler's permit to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A judge rejected the city's attempt to move Kessler's protest to another spot in the city. One factor in his decision was that the city, while requiring Kessler's protest to move, was not requiring planned counterprotests to move.

"We asked, the city of Charlottesville asked for that to be moved out of downtown Charlottesville to a park about a mile and a half away, a lot of open fields," McAuliffe told NPR. "That was the place that it should've been. We were, unfortunately, sued by the ACLU. And the judge ruled against us."

The ACLU rebuked the notion it was responsible for the violence. In a statement Monday, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastanaga said the organization is "horrified" by the violence and would be "eager" to work with local government officials to "understand their rights and obligations under the law."

"But let's be clear: our lawsuit challenging the city to act constitutionally did not cause violence nor did it in any way address the question whether demonstrators could carry sticks or other weapons at the events," Gastanaga said.

The ACLU has continued to condemn hate and white supremacy while defending people's rights to share such views under the First Amendment.

"We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground. Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it."

Romero cited the organization's history of defending free speech rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. He said the ACLU does not want the government to "favor or disfavor particular viewpoints."

Romero said the First Amendment cannot be used as "sword or shield to justify or rationalize violence." However, he said, the government cannot use the threat of violence as an excuse to block protests. That is why the ACLU supported Kessler's lawsuit.

"Invoking the threat of violence cannot serve as the government's carte blanche to shut down protests," he said. "If that were the case, governments would almost always be able to shut down protests, even when the protesters themselves are peaceful, because others could exercise a heckler's veto through violence or the threat of violence."

The ACLU's three California chapters issued a joint statement Wednesday saying white supremacists "armed to the teeth with the intent to harm people" are not protected under the Constitution.

The national organization responded Thursday saying it agreed with the California branches. However, it differed on whether white supremacists' speech is constitutional.

"At the same time, we believe that even odious hate speech, with which we vehemently disagree, garners the protection of the First Amendment when expressed non-violently," the ACLU said in a statement.

The organization said "horrible events" in Charlottesville last weekend will inform its decisions on who to represent going forward.