Discover more from PLURIBUS
ACLU 1994: Free Speech Is Worth The Cost
"The price we pay for the right to express ourselves is the burden of listening to others whose views we hate."
On February 18, 1994, the New York Times published a letter to the editor from Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, responding to a column lamenting that right-wing advocacy groups were able to use discounted third-class postal rates available to all nonprofit organizations. The ACLU rightly argued that policies like the postal rate discount must remain content neutral and encouraged more opportunities for groups from every perspective to communicate.
To the Editor:
In "The Cost of Free Speech" (column, Feb. 9), Anna Quindlen laments that her tax dollars help pay for mailings from organizations like Living Truth Ministries, the National Rifle Association and Operation Rescue through discounted third-class postal rates. She considers the third-class postage available to nonprofit organizations a Government subsidy.
It drives her wild, she says, "to know that even a single cent of my money goes to pay for the mailings."
But that is what conservatives like Henry Hyde say about Medicaid paying for abortions for poor women. It is what Jesse Helms says about National Endowment for the Arts grants paying for art he finds offensive.
Nonprofit status itself exempts organizations from Federal taxes on contributions, and often from local real estate taxes. Such "subsidies" are far larger than postal discounts.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once ruled that abolitionists did not have a right to demonstrate on the Boston Common because it was public property, and "the people" could bar groups they didn't like from "their" property as if it were a private backyard. That view has not prevailed in the law.
We can (1) end such public subsidies, (2) provide them content-neutral, or (3) provide them selectively, based on whether or not we agree with the beneficiary's activity.
The last is the approach chosen by Representative Hyde for denying Medicaid funds for abortions and by Senator Helms for denying grants to politically incorrect art. It should be rejected as giving the Government the power to impose political and religious ideology on the rest of us.
Nor should such subsidies be uniformly ended. Postal discounts, for example, support freedom of speech as a whole. Without such subsidies, many viewpoints could not be heard, and the marketplace of debate would be even more sharply restricted. The same is true of tax exemption, and of access to public parks and streets. If all these were ended, the First Amendment couldn't work.
That leaves the first choice: if Government subsidizes medical services, art, mailing privileges or access to public lands or certain charitable, religious and educational activities, it must do so on a viewpoint-neutral basis. Otherwise we are back to Holmes's long-discredited opinion.
The price we pay for the right to express ourselves is the burden of listening to others whose views we hate. The remedy is to contest these views. To do that, we need to expand, not to diminish opportunities to communicate.
American Civil Liberties Union
New York, Feb. 9, 1994