Nico Perrino was only 26 when he met two giants in the history of the American Civil Liberties Union: Ira Glasser, its executive director from 1978 to 2001, and Norman Siegel, the leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 to 2000.
At the time, in 2017, Perrino was a couple of years into working for FIRE, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that defends the civil liberties of students and faculty. (Its full name is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)
As such, he was aware of the ACLU’s vast expansion under Glasser and its role in broadening the First Amendment’s protection for free expression for all Americans. But he knew little about the specific battles these men, and their allies, had fought. And he was deeply concerned about the growth of hate speech in American life.
“The events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 … have deeply affected my generation’s view of free speech,” Perrino says in a statement about his new film, “Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story.”
“It’s imperative for us to know the history that led Ira and his colleagues to take their positions and stake out their values,” he adds.
Produced by Perrino and two of his FIRE colleagues, Chris Maltby and Aaron Reese, the film was released in October on the occasion of the ACLU centennial, and is now streaming on multiple platforms.
The 99-minute documentary honors Glasser’s lifelong commitment to strengthening the legal support system for free expression, even when that expression may run counter to majority views.
The Brooklyn-born Glasser, a mathematician and educator, took over the ACLU in 1978, just after the organization defended, with attendant controversy, the right of American neo-Nazis to march for their beliefs in Skokie, Illinois, home to many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. For the next 23 years, he defended the principle of free speech across the political spectrum.
“Ira comes from … the old-school generation of civil libertarians: a generation that saw Jim Crow and the stark ravages of racial discrimination. It’s a generation that also saw the essentiality of free speech in fighting for racial justice,” Perrino says.
Because the work of Glasser and his cohorts occurred largely before the internet age, “Their ideas, their writings and their life’s work are harder to discover,” Perrino says. “That’s why we created ‘Mighty Ira’ — to tell the story of one man and a fading generation.”
In interviews for the film, Glasser was forthcoming, engaging and compelling in his account of those times, Perrino says.
In a statement relevant to the political tensions of today, Perrino adds, “It’s a generation that also knew it had to engage their ideological opponents in debate, to speak across lines of difference, in order to win their values — something Ira did repeatedly with his sparring partner and friend, William F. Buckley Jr.”
Glasser, who was born in 1938, currently serves on the advisory board for FIRE, which produced the film.
The documentary includes 99-year-old Berkeley resident Ben Stern, a Holocaust survivor who, in the late 1970s, tirelessly contested the ACLU’s position on the Skokie case. Stern continues to be a principled activist against racism and antisemitism.
In 2017, he led a protest against a white supremacist rally in Berkeley, and has since taken part in protests of Trump administration policies on refugees (in particular, the separation of families). In his segment of the film, he explains to Glasser why he still thinks the ACLU was wrong to defend the right of neo-Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie — and how the events in Charlottesville evoked painful memories.
Other voices in the film include acclaimed public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative), Michael Meyers (leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition), the aforementioned Siegel (former NYCLU lawyer) and many others with hands-on experience in linking, and fighting for, the civil rights of all Americans as the principle under which they are legally united.
Or need to be … now more than ever.