Nadine Strossen: A Frequent Flier for Free Speech

Nadine Strossen was not only the first female President of the American Civil Liberties Union—but also its youngest, leading the organization from 1991 to 2008. Currently the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School, she continues to use her platform to forward the cause of civil liberties/human rights all over  the U.S. and also abroad — from criminal justice and drug law reform,  to gender and reproductive rights, to free speech for even the most despised  expression. 

Strossen looks forward to assuming emeritus professor status next year after having taught constitutional law for 35 years; the ACLU Presidency is an unpaid, volunteer position, so even though she was an extremely active President, she also worked full-time as a law professor throughout her tenure. When she steps out of her law professor role, Strossen will miss the regular interaction with her NYLS students, but she looks forward to maintaining – and even increasing — her intense pace of public speaking and media interviews, which have averaged about 200 per year, and have brought her to about 600 different college/university campuses, enabling engagement with a broader array of students and others.  

Concern on Campus

In fact, it is on campus that Strossen feels her influence is most needed today. Strossen was a student activist herself. As 15-year-old, she wrote to her local paper defending a high school teacher who had been disciplined for showing slides of Vietnam War atrocities with peaceful folk music playing in the background, and she continued to be active in the anti-Vietnam War and women’s rights/reproductive freedom movements, throughout her student days.  Therefore, she has been thrilled by the recent resurgence of student engagement in movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. But she says, “I was disheartened by the fact that too many students and others have called for censoring speakers who don’t share their views, apparently believing that freedom of speech would undermine the social justice causes they champion.”

“Anecdotal reports, as well as polling data, forced me to recognize that neither I nor others who advocate robust freedom of speech, as well as equal rights, had sufficiently explained our position,” Strossen says. “We clearly had not persuaded many students and others that equal justice for all depends on full freedom of speech for all.”

This observation inspired her to write her acclaimed 2018 book, book HATE: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship. In accessible and persuasive language, Strossen dispels the misunderstandings that plague polarizing debates about “hate speech v. free speech,” showing that the First Amendment approach – which is also consistent with international human rights principles — promotes both free speech and equality, as well as  democracy, societal harmony, and individual well-being.

In the forthcoming paperback edition of her book, Strossen includes an extensive epilogue on what is now the major forum for both free speech and censorship:  social media.  As she recently testified before a Congressional hearing on social media companies’ efforts to counter the potential adverse impacts of extremist content,  misinformation, and hateful speech, convincing evidence demonstrates that – as has been true in other media — censorship is ineffective at best, counterproductive at worst,  but that counter-speech is a promising alternative.

Daughter of a Holocaust Survivor, Defender of Neo-Nazi Speech Rights

As an advocate on the forefront of equal rights and anti-discrimination causes, Strossen is often asked how she could possibly defend hatemongers. 

Probably the most famous (or infamous) example is the 1977 “Skokie case,” when the ACLU defended the free speech rights of a group of neo-Nazis who wanted to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois — a town near Chicago that had a large Jewish population, many of whom were actually Holocaust survivors.  

The ACLU easily won the case by arguing for what the U.S. Supreme Court has called the “bedrock principle” underlying our free speech jurisprudence: that government may never suppress speech solely because “we the people,” even the vast majority of us, dislike its views, its ideas, its message.  

“Even if we loathe and despise and fear that message,  the Supreme Court tells us that we should raise our own voices in counter-speech,” explains Strossen, noting that the ACLU had relied on the very same arguments just a few years earlier to defend free speech in another Illinois town where residents objected to a march by Martin Luther King’s supporters because their civil rights message was considered offensive and dangerous.

In speaking about Skokie and similar issues, Strossen invariably invokes her own family history: her late father Woodrow was a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in the Buchenwald forced labor camp and liberated by United States Army troops one day before he was scheduled for sterilization. (As Strossen likes to observe, “I literally owe my life to the U.S. military.”). 

She also recalls that her maternal grandfather, a carpenter and Yugoslavian emigrant, was a conscientious objector during World War I who was ordered to stand outside the Hudson County, N.J. courthouse for a day with his hands against the wall so that passers-by could spit on him.

“He could have been an ACLU client,” Strossen says.

An Unlikely Friendship 

In her work with the ACLU, which has always been staunchly non-partisan, never endorsing or opposing political candidates or officials, Strossen often found herself in “strange bedfellow” coalitions on particular issues of common concern with many individuals and groups  with whom she/the ACLU strongly disagreed on other important issues:  everyone from religious conservatives,  to the NRA,  to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

“In terms of advancing your causes, if you can work together constructively with someone on a particular issue, you should do that regardless of whether you disagree on another issue,” Strossen says.  “It’s going to make it more likely that you will succeed in your jointly shared cause — also,  on a human level it’s just fun and interesting to get to know, spend time with, and learn from people who have different ideas and experiences.”

One such person Strossen got to know well was the arch-conservative late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – or Nino, as she called him. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship, despite their important differences.  Justice Scalia was on hand to pay tribute when Strossen stepped down as ACLU president in 2008 – along with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, illustrating the ideological diversity of her friends. 

Says Strossen: “Nino and I were good friends not despite our strong disagreements on issues that were of fundamental importance to both of us, but because of that fact. It’s sad that people seem to think that such disagreements prevent you from being mutually respectful and enjoying each other’s company.  To the contrary, thanks to your differences, you can learn from each other and grow in yourself.  Most of us seem to take for granted – rightly – that we benefit from engaging with people who are diverse in terms of identity, but too many of us don’t realize that the same benefits flow from engaging with people who are ideologically diverse.” 

As Strossen continues to engage with diverse audiences, she hopes to encourage them to experience the empowerment, fulfillment, and indeed personal happiness that result from exercising what she considers to be the most important right for all of us:  the right not to remain silent.  

Learn more about Strossen at the New York Law School website.