Like many of us, I’ve been struggling to process what happened in Charlottesville over the weekend, and what’s been happening in this country for a while now. The racism and hatred and violence didn’t magically appear out of nowhere. It’s been building up for a long time…in fact, much of it has always been there. It’s just boiling over into the open right now, making it harder (but obviously not impossible) to look away and pretend it’s not happening.
Part of the argument I’ve seen centers around free speech and the First Amendment. Free speech is a right, an important one, and rights apply to everyone. Even people you dislike and disagree with.
But freedom of speech in this country is not and has never been limitless. From the U.S. Federal Courts, here are a few examples of actions not legally protected by freedom of speech:
- Students making an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.
- Making/distributing obscene materials.
- Inciting actions that would harm others (e.g., Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.)
Now, here are some of the “alt-right” protesters who gathered in Charlottesville.
These people here? The ones wearing swastikas, waving Nazi flags, marching in T-shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes, and throwing Nazi salutes?
This isn’t protest. This is a threat.
The message here is not, “I don’t want you to take down a statue.” It’s “I believe in ethnic cleansing, in the murder of millions of Jews, Romani, and other non-white people. I believe people with disabilities should be forcibly sterilized or put to death. I believe non-heterosexuals should be imprisoned and killed.”
These people are pledging allegiance to a movement of mass murder. We know what the Nazis stood for. We know what they did. When people stand up in 2017 and proclaim themselves Nazis, we know what they’re saying. We know what they’re promising.
I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t believe freedom of speech protects the incitement of violence. I don’t believe it protects threats of genocide.
Maybe you don’t personally feel threatened by this. In many ways, neither do I. I’m a straight white man, unlikely to be a primary target of these hateful people.
Now imagine you’re Jewish. Imagine you’re black. Imagine you’re gay. Imagine you’re Romani. Imagine your ancestors were among the millions of people murdered by Nazis. Now look at those photos and tell me you’re not looking at a very real threat.
“But not all of the ‘Unite the Right’ marchers were openly wearing Nazi symbols!”
You’re right, and if you’ll read a little more carefully, you’ll see I never claimed otherwise. But they marched alongside Nazis. They chanted “Jews will not replace us!” alongside Nazis. They stood side-by-side with Nazis.
“Isn’t it so convenient for you to exclude speech you don’t like from the free speech umbrella? Free speech is an absolute right, and the true test is whether we’ll stand up for speech we disagree with!”
As established earlier, legally speaking, free speech is not an absolute right. Ethically–well, do you believe people have the absolute right to harass others? To threaten? To leak private information? To incite violence and murder? I don’t. Which means ethically, free speech isn’t an absolute right either.
I struggled with this. But in the end, I look at the photos and videos from Charlottesville, and I see deliberate intimidation. I see the threat and promise of violence. I see people proclaiming their loyalty to an enemy our country went to war against.
I see no reason to tolerate or accept that enemy.
Nor do I have any respect for those who knowingly collaborate with them.