To understand the Declaration of Independence, President Woodrow Wilson was fond of telling his Princeton University students, "do not repeat the preface." Skip all that business about principle. Focus instead on the grievances against King George, the complaints specific to 1776 America.
In another life, University of Chicago Law School Professor Laura Weinrib must've been a student. She argues in the Los Angeles Times that the "free speech stance" of the ACLU, and by association of liberals everywhere, "should be about social justice, not ‘timeless' principles." But that sort of historicism ushers in an unpleasant despotism cloaked as modern progress.
The argument isn't new, just more extreme. She argues that the ACLU originally took a liberal view of free speech in order to "pave the way to fundamental economic change." The liberty was a means to an end -- in other words, suitable for a specific time and place. Now that neo-Nazis are marching in town squares and corporations are winning free speech cases in court, it's time to discard the First Amendment.
Then again, who is Weinrib to decide when America has outgrown its principles? Does her stack of Ivy League degrees really give her such unique insight into human nature and good governance? What's more, who will define justice and decide what sort of speech will be permissible? Or will it be determined by the violent whims of Antifa thugs in the streets? Would that be worse or better than having us all judged by academics in dusty ivory towers?
Perhaps flipping the argument and switching up the actors would give Weinrib pause about monkeying around with first principles. For instance, Donald Trump won the presidency and Republican governors control the majority of the states. Why, by her logic, shouldn't they redefine the First Amendment to suit their whims instead?
Kellyanne Conway could strip #FakeNews outlets of their freedom of the press. Rev. Jerry Falwell could deny certain places of worship their freedom of religion. And a plague of Pepe the Frogs on Twitter could choose what constitutes acceptable speech online.
A frightfully absurd example, you say? It's fundamentally no different than what Weinrib wants. It's just that she thinks people who share her opinions should make the rules for speech. Like Wilson and the rest of the progressives, she dreams of reshaping and perfecting principles to conform to the needs of the moment. Inevitably though, what modernity supposedly demands eventually becomes what authorities secretly prefer.
And that's why changing the ACLU's focus on free speech is so dangerous. The civil rights group has done some of their best work while defending the rights of the worst people. Adding an asterisk to their approach to the First Amendment wouldn't just undermine their legacy. It would trash liberty itself.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.