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Civil liberties make progress possible

Jan 5, 2021 by AFP

The civil liberties that are the bedrock of our country — freedoms of speech and the press, freedom of religion, and the rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government — empower Americans to make progress toward our founding ideals.

Protecting individual rights against those in power who attempt to restrict them is essential to making it possible for everyday people to take courageous stands. Those rights have ensured that Americans are free to drive change. We’ve witnessed it from the earliest days of the republic, from abolitionism to education, from women’s suffrage to civil rights to freedom of conscience, and beyond, to fully realize the vision of equal rights reflected in the Declaration of Independence.

Our vision in action

Through advocacy, education, and the courts, we work alongside partners to defend these rights and make it easier for citizens to access information about their government. This work aims to empower all Americans to engage on the issues they are most passionate about and hold those in power accountable.

  • Every effort is grounded in our commitment to rule of law, to use of reason and debate rather than fear and violence, and to the shared democratic norms and ideals that define us as a country.
  • Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has worked alongside partners in several states to support policies that protect free speech on campus for students and scholars and clear the way for them to expand opportunities for civil discourse and open inquiry.
  • Our sister organization, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), stood with more than 100 other public interest, civil liberty, and open government organizations to encourage transparency and accountability from government agencies making pandemic-related policies.
  • AFP has joined with partners in several states to successfully advocate for reforms that empower judges to dismiss frivolous lawsuits filed to punish free expression.
  • AFP partners with FreedomWorks, the Project on Government Oversight, and more than three dozen other organizations to advocate reforms to the PATRIOT Act and surveillance programs that can silence speech and be used for political rather than legitimate national security purposes.

Guiding principles and insights

All our rights are bound together

When we protect the rights of one group of people but not another, our foundational freedoms erode because our rights are bound together. If those in power can arbitrarily shut down protests and silence political speech they don’t like, we’re all at risk. When the political winds shift, those deciding who gets silenced might themselves become the silenced.

This is not a problem unique to today.

  • Congress enacted racketeering laws to target organized crime. They were later used to sweep up peaceful pro-life protesters as part of action against violent actors.
  • Lawmakers passed the PATRIOT Act to combat terrorism. But Section 215 of the law now puts Americans’ constitutionally protected privacy rights at risk, as it’s used to collect massive amounts of sensitive information without warrants.
  • Public schools have instituted speech codes intended to address offensive speech aimed at minority students. The restrictions have been used to punish the very people they were designed to protect.

All are examples of how the first targets of expansive laws are rarely the last. We stand against these kinds of abuses.

Muckracking journalist Ida B. Wells wrote, “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Peaceful protest, free expression, and free assembly are fundamental to turning on the light of truth and are essential catalysts for progress.

Civil liberties are the solution to uncivil times

The great 19th century statesman Fredrick Douglass wrote on the eve of a civil war that “liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” Our divisions today, while serious, are not that extreme. But it is a critical moment for free expression and ensuring the protection of civil liberties remains the surest solution to uncivil times.

One of America’s greatest strengths is the ability to self-correct — to recognize when the country has contradicted its ideals, then to act collectively to correct the injustice. Essential to that process is the protection of individual rights, for only when each us feels secure enough to act can we act together in defense of each other.

“Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”

More examples of our work in action

On Free Association and Protest Rights

  • Citizens should be able to lend their voice to public discourse by joining together in charitable, civic, and community organizations and standing alongside others to support causes important to them. AFP defends First Amendment advocacy and citizen privacy when federal and state lawmakers attempt to squelch people’s right to free speech and free association. In states including New Jersey, AFP has worked alongside dozens of partners including ACLU and Garden State Equality to oppose unconstitutional policies that hinder freedom of assembly and association.

On Religious Liberty

  • Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are the necessary predicate to free expression. The freedom to speak or to associate around ideas cannot be protected where the very freedoms of thought and belief are themselves in doubt. Thriving societies are ones that ensure religious freedom for all. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, AFPF is one of a diverse mix of organizations that filed briefs challenging Philadelphia’s prohibition on Catholic Social Services from participating in the city’s foster child placement program. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, AFPF challenged Montana’s attempt to exclude programs serving students at religious schools from a generally available and religiously neutral student-aid program.

On Open Government

  • As James Madison wrote, “knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” AFPF defends the right of watchdogs, activists, and citizens to insist on transparency in addressing civil unrest and has worked with partners including Demand Progress to support federal legislation that requires the Office of Legal Counsel to release redacted legal memos, allowing citizens to know government legal determinations regarding, among other things, “what constitutes torture, how U.S. citizens can be engaged on foreign soil, and what rules guide presidential action around executive orders.” In the states, we’ve also submitted records requests to shine a light on activity like how Kansas state officials were arbitrarily picking which businesses could and couldn’t operate during the initial stages of COVID-19 shutdowns.

On Press Freedom 

On Free Speech Online

  • Technological advances make it easier for people to express themselves and to connect with each other. We work to ensure First and Fourth Amendment protections extend to the digital world. In North Carolina AFP opposed digital ad restrictions that threatened to chill civic engagement. AFPF joined with the Brennan Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others in filing an amicus brief in Wikimedia v. NSA to contest the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of international internet communications.

Our work with partners empowers people to engage in civil society and seek solutions to America’s biggest challenges. That work depends on robust protection of the rights to free expression and assembly, and the other foundational rights that rest at the heart of the American experiment.

AFP mobilizes Americans to advocate for bottom-up solutions to problems that prevent people from realizing their full potential, with a focus on addressing unsustainable government spending and debt, reforming the health care, immigration, and criminal justice systems, protecting civil liberties, and building an economy where everyone has an opportunity find success.

AFPF works in communities and alongside partners to provide educational programs and resources on the toughest issues facing our country.