Former ACLU President: Obama Was ‘Terrible President’ On Free Speech Issues

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Rob Shimshock Education Reporter
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A former American Civil Liberties Union president suggested former President Barack Obama was a “terrible president” when it came to free speech issues, during a Friday interview.

Former ACLU president and author Nadine Strossen made the remark during a phone interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation about the ACLU’s efforts with regard to free speech on college campuses going back to the 1990s.

“I still think a lot of liberals aren’t aware [of] what a terrible president [Obama] was,” Strossen told TheDCNF, alluding to the fact that the former president used the Espionage Act to pursue whistleblowers more times than all previous presidents had combined. But she also praised Obama for encouraging students to engage in discussion.

“I would say many people are more deeply engaged about politics and more concerned about their civil liberties,” the former ACLU president said, when asked to compare the state of free speech on campus under Obama to that under President Donald Trump.

Strossen is the author of the newly released book “HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship” and has toured college campuses both during and after her 1991–2008 tenure as ACLU’s president. She discussed the concept of hate speech with New York University law professor Jeremy Waldron, author of “The Harm in Hate Speech” at Cornell University in April. (RELATED: Why Are Colleges Obsessed With ‘Free Speech Vs. Hate Speech Workshops?)

“There has been so much push-back by liberals against free speech,” Strossen told TheDCNF. She surmised that this might be because liberals often argue that “high-profile beneficiaries [of free speech] are conservatives [but] that’s certainly no reason to not defend free speech at all.”

The former ACLU president also discussed what she deemed the most significant lawsuits pursued by the civil liberties group during her tenure, highlighting the group’s defense of University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz, who, in 1993 yelled “shut up, you water buffalo” at a group of female students after previously complaining that they were being too loud.

The black female students sued Jacobowitz for violating UPenn’s racial harassment policy, but dropped charges after Jacobowitz received backing from the ACLU, The Wall Street Journal and Rush Limbaugh.

Strossen also referenced Doe v. University of Michigan, a 1989 case in which the ACLU successfully backed a psychology graduate student against the University of Michigan’s hate speech policy, which a U.S. district court ultimately deemed violated students’ free speech rights. Potentially restrictive policies at the University of Michigan have resurfaced, however, in a lawsuit filed by free speech nonprofit Speech First against the school, citing its “un-American” bias response team. (RELATED: University Of Michigan Sued For ‘Un-American’ Speech Codes)

The former ACLU president said free speech laws are not “self-executing … you have to just keep suing or negotiating … [with] every single campus individually.” She noted a spike in attacks on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, saying “I and the others in the ACLU were so enthusiastic when [the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education] was founded.”

The author expressed optimism about the future of free speech on campus.

“I see a lot of students who are really hungering for frank and candid debate and discussion on the sensitive issues that have led to charges of racism and therefore shutdown,” Strossen told TheDCNF. “They say they’re walking on eggshells — faculty members feel the same way.”

Strossen explained that tracking ACLU litigation involving free speech on campus was difficult because state affiliate chapters take on cases individually. TheDCNF reached out to the ACLU on Tuesday to ascertain how the organization has defended civil liberties on campuses lately, but spokesman Thomas Dresslar replied that no one was available to speak to the issue during the week.

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