The ACLU of Oregon Has Emerged as Portland’s Most Consistent Free-Speech Fundamentalists
“Free speech is an indivisible right, and everyone has to have it for the whole thing to work."
By Katie Shepherd
In a year when the First Amendment seems under threat from all sides, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has emerged as Portland's most dogged and consistent defenders of free speech—no matter who's talking or what they're saying.
"We think that the First Amendment rights are the cornerstone of all of our other rights," says ACLU spokeswoman Sarah Armstrong. "But it can be complicated because we often have strange bedfellows when we're talking about free speech."
Strange bedfellows indeed. The ACLU of Oregon chided Mayor Ted Wheeler for asking the federal government to revoke a permit allowing far-right activists to hold a Trump Free Speech Rally. Just nine days before, Jeremy Christian—who had attended marches held by the same activists—hurled racist insults at two Muslim teenagers on a MAX train and then stabbed three men who came to the girls' defense, killing two of them. Wheeler said the city's wounds were still too raw.
But the ACLU wasn't having it.
"The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period," the ACLU tweeted in response. "If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line."
In March, the ACLU had been just as firm in its opposition when the Portland City Council voted to instate a rule banning "disruptive" leftist gadflies from council meetings.
"Free speech is an indivisible right, and everyone has to have it for the whole thing to work," Armstrong says.
Recently, the ACLU of Oregon stood up for those who have very little power to raise their own voices, by taking on laws that bar homeless people from panhandling in Portland and Gresham. The cities settled the case and are currently changing their laws against panhandling after the ACLU challenged them on the grounds that they illegally outlawed an entire class of speech: speech asking for money.
The civil liberties group's most recent free speech victory, on June 28, helped a coalition of conservation groups exercise the right to buy ads in Portland International Airport after the Port of Portland refused to post anti-clearcutting billboards because of their political message.
And there's more: The ACLU had a major victory in April when Portland and Gresham settled in a case involving a woman who livestreamed the police in 2013. A Gresham police officer grabbed Carrie Medina's phone, twisted her arm and detained her, effectively censoring her. The free-speech champions have also put pressure on Portland police to use a lighter touch when policing protests and to stop targeting protest leaders and political activists.
"Being known as a place where people regularly take to the streets, people are surprised when they see what the police response to protest is like here," Armstrong said. "You'll definitely see more from us on protest rights. We're clearly not done."