After the horrible murders of workers at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January, it became chic for a few weeks to wear buttons saying “I am Charlie Hebdo.” I thought that was a mistake then and I almost wrote a blog post on it. The discussion on my recent defense of freedom of association has convinced me that I was remiss in not writing a post. The reason: in the discussion of freedom of association, many people have failed to understand the distinction between favoring someone’s freedom and favoring someone’s use of that freedom. I saw that same blunting of distinctions with the Charlie Hebdo button.

Consider an extreme case: the desire of the National Socialist Party of America to march through Skokie, Illinois in 1977. The background is that this seemed to be intended as an in-your-face rally because a large number of residents of Skokie were Holocaust survivors. The American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of the Nazis to have their march. The ACLU saw it as a free speech issue. So did I.

Imagine that someone had fashioned a badge then that said “I am the National Socialist Party.” Do you see the problem? The ACLU could, in good conscience, defend the National Socialists’ right to march and one reason it could do so is that it was NOT the National Socialist Party and–call it a hunch–the vast majority of members of the ACLU (I was one*) detested what the National Socialist Party stood for. The ACLU understood then that to defend someone’s freedom of speech is not to defend someone’s speech.

Ditto with freedom of association. Defending someone’s freedom of association is not at all the same thing as defending someone’s choice about whom to associate or not associate with.

One other comment: One thing I find interesting–and discouraging–is libertarians who use language they know to be wrong and language that they have, countless times, objected to when used by critics of freedom. Libertarian Penn Jillette did that here. He stated:

We’re asking that maybe they can treat people the same as other people and that does not seem unreasonable.

No one is asking. If that’s all people were doing, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

*I became a permanent resident of the United States in October 1977. I was so concerned about something gumming up the works that I didn’t dare join the ACLU before getting my green card. The ACLU was the first organization I joined after I got the green card.