Free expression is foundational in a healthy democracy. The freedom to speak, write, learn, report, gather, celebrate, protest, worship, and identify as we choose without fear of arrest or government sanction or coercion — all of this is inscribed in the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
And right now, free expression is particularly vital. In a contentious political environment, leaders and institutions across the political spectrum try to stifle dissent and silence views with which they disagree. But free expression is what makes our society open, vibrant, and democratic. That is why we challenge those who seek to censor diverse viewpoints at public meetings, force the removal of books from school libraries, deny the exercise of free expression based on the identity of the speakers, and more.
With recent poll results showing that a vast majority of statewide voters care just as much about free expression as we do, the ACLU of Massachusetts has assembled the Free Expression Project — to highlight pressing threats to free expression in the Commonwealth, to emphasize what we are doing to fight back, and to empower Massachusetts residents with resources about this fundamental right that is essential to our democracy.
100 Years of Unwavering Advocacy
The ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the national ACLU, was founded with a commitment to defending the right of free expression protected by the First Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. From its earliest days intervening on behalf of immigrants and labor organizers, or reproductive health advocates speaking on Boston Common, the ACLU was made for this task.
Throughout our 100-year history, the ACLU has protected the right to free speech wherever it is threatened — from public streets, parks, and sidewalks to public meetings to our schools, where children learn the value of hearing different viewpoints and perspectives. The ACLU of Massachusetts defends the rights of students to express their views both inside and outside of school; the freedom of low-income people to ask their neighbors for assistance; the rights of all to peaceably assemble, perform (including in drag), and march in our communities; the right to display political views at one’s home; and the foundational right to criticize the performance of public officials.
The ACLU’s free expression advocacy has led to tangible and far-reaching reforms in Massachusetts. As a result of our work, there is now a recognized First Amendment right to record police officers performing their duties in public, which is essential to ensuring more just policing practices.
The Free Expression Project will allow us to showcase, celebrate, and build on this work like never before.
The Work Today
The Free Expression Project is currently focused on several leading threats in Massachusetts and beyond, namely:
Students not only have a right to speak but also to learn. Attempts to censor educational materials — especially those about marginalized groups — threaten the very foundations of public education. The ACLU vigorously defends students’ rights to read books conveying a diverse range of viewpoints and experiences.
Public comment restrictions
Free expression means nothing if not the ability to criticize our leaders, but many elected officials have sought to shield themselves from criticism by censoring those who criticize the government during comments in public meetings, or by shutting down public comment altogether. The ACLU is at the forefront of statewide efforts to preserve public comment.
Curtailment of public assembly and protest rights
The right to assemble and protest peacefully is among the most important in a democratic society, and the ACLU has long been a champion in this field. We work to ensure that governments do not charge unreasonable costs for the right to protest, deny equal rights of expression for viewpoints or speakers with whom they may not agree, or otherwise unlawfully restrict the right to gather and express.
Rules against political signs
Throughout the Commonwealth, we have seen increasing attempts to silence and punish people for expressing themselves at their own homes through signs that show support for certain political candidates or causes. In recent years, the ACLU has successfully defended the right to display a wide variety of signs — from “Black Lives Matter” to “Biden is not my president” — at one’s home.
Across the country and even here in Massachusetts, there are attempts to deny equal rights of free speech to those who express themselves through drag performance. This is part of a troubling trend — also reflected in calls for book bans — of attempts to curb LGBTQIA+ expression and erase queer people from public life. We will not allow these efforts to go unchallenged in Massachusetts.
To hone critical thinking skills, nurture new ideas, and learn to engage in a world full of people with diverse viewpoints, students must have the ability to participate in open discussion and nonviolent, nondisruptive protest. Such opportunities are vital for preparing students to participate in our pluralistic society. A college or university that censors or punishes students for their protected speech or associations risks undermining not only its own status as a center of free inquiry, but also the very foundation of our democracy.