On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union seemingly called on America to follow France’s lead – and ban catcalling. The tweet was swiftly deleted, though I obtained a screenshot.
A U.S. ban on catcalling – defined as street harassment of women, usually by men, often of a sexual nature – would likely violate the First Amendment, unless the law was very narrowly tailored to prohibit only severe, pervasive, objectively offensive conduct, or threatening behavior. Even then the Supreme Court might strike it down; think of Snyder v. Phelps. As obnoxious as catcalling is, the government simply can’t prevent men from talking to women in public. This is something that many anti-catcalling groups understand explicitly, which is why they often oppose attempts criminalize such behavior.
So it’s pretty telling that the ACLU could forget, even for a moment, that banning catcalling would be a significant blow to civil liberties, and would likely undermine other important goals, like criminal justice reform. (In the U.S. at least, the government would disproportionately arrest poor people, immigrants, and people of color for catcalling.)
Yes, I am aware that a single tweet does not indicate a broad structural shift in the ACLU’s thinking: most likely this was done by one social media editor. I am still astonished that such a person—someone who is deeply confused about what the ACLU ostensibly stands for—would find themselves in the position of running the ACLU’s Twitter feed. Did free speech not come up during the job interview?
I previously expressed concern that the American Civil Liberties Union was wavering on its ironclad commitment to free speech, given concerns raised by former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer. Another friend of the organization, former president Nadine Strossen, disputed this characterization…