WASHINGTON (CN) – After drawing heavy criticism for defending the right of white supremacists to hold their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday it will no longer represent hate groups that demonstrate with loaded firearms.
ACLU president Anthony Romero said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the group will more closely scrutinize potential white supremacist clients, looking at the possibility for violence at rallies.
Romero told the Journal that what happened in Charlottesville will require judges, law enforcement officials and legal groups to more closely examine white supremacist protests.
“If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else,” Romero told the Journal.
From now on, Romero said the ACLU will consider requests for legal representation by white supremacist groups on a case-by-case basis.
The announcement came one day after the ACLU of California released a statement condemning white supremacist violence, which it said “is not free speech.”
“If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” the statement said. “The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
The statement was signed by the executive directors of the northern, southern, and San Diego and Imperial Counties branches.
The ACLU had filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in the University of Virginia college town, which drew hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis protesting the planned removal of a Confederate statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had wanted to move the location of the protest, but a judge rejected that request after the ACLU sued.
Officials declared a state of emergency before the rally could get underway but the gathering turned deadly after 20-year-old Ohio man James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly plowed his vehicle into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring scores more.
Critics pounced on the ACLU in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville, including McAuliffe who pointed a finger at the group in an interview Monday with NPR’s Morning Edition.
McAuliffe reiterated that the city of Charlottesville had asked for the protest to be moved to a nearby park with open fields.
“We were unfortunately sued by the ACLU. Unfortunately the judge ruled against us,” McAuliffe had said. “That rally should not have been in the middle of downtown – to disperse all those people from the park where they dispersed all over the city streets. And it became a powder keg,” he added.
In a blog post Tuesday ACLU president Romero addressed the critics, explaining why the group has defended the free speech rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Romero stated that the group “unequivocally rejects” white supremacist ideology. But he said there are reasons the group has long defended free speech, including speech the group says it abhors.
“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 said.
He added: “We simply never want government to be in a position to favor or disfavor particular viewpoints. And the fact is, government officials — from the local to the national — are more apt to suppress the speech of individuals or groups who disagree with government positions.”
The ACLU did not respond to an email seeking comment on the group’s policy shift.