Editorial: Hate speech is loathsome, but trying to silence it is dangerous
Despite the debacle in Charlottesville, Va. — or perhaps because of it — you can rest assured that there will be more marches around the nation in the coming weeks by people who espouse hateful, racist ideas. And those events, some of which are already planned, will undoubtedly draw counter-protesters determined to shout down, if not shut down, the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, self-styled storm troopers and others from the cesspool of the far right.
The vast majority of Americans would sooner have their communities hit by a plague of locusts than by the torch-bearing racists who invaded Charlottesville. Nevertheless, it is vitally important to recognize that people are constitutionally free to hold even the most deplorable views, and to express them as well. Counter-protesters, for their part, are equally entitled to say clearly and forcefully that racism, anti-Semitism and similar beliefs that denigrate or deny the humanity of others have no place in our society.
Neither side, however, has a right to start throwing punches. Nor should the mere risk of such violence be used as pretext for denying people the ability to exercise their right to free speech or assembly.
These exceptionally American notions seem lost on some of our leaders. A case in point: Several elected officials have asked the federal government to withdraw a permit for an Aug. 26 rally at San Francisco’s Crissy Field organized by Patriot Prayer, a Portland-based group of right-wing provocateurs. That is the exactly wrong approach. Denying permits in order to shut down speech that is offensive or so controversial that it might provoke a violent backlash is the act of an autocratic government.
This nation has a history during times of stress of trampling the very rights we supposedly revere.
That doesn’t mean authorities should blithely allow people to be put in danger. The melee in Charlottesville, like the clashes in Berkeley, Portland and other communities where extremists on the right and left clashed, demonstrate how volatile these events can be. No one can reasonably expect a gathering of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist activists to produce a Kumbaya moment.
Instead, local officials must rise to the challenge and ensure the public peace through proper preparation, crowd control, site-specific rules on what items are allowed, and other reasonable steps to mitigate violence. The clashes in Charlottesville over the weekend stand as a warning to communities that do not prepare for such events. It’s clear from eyewitness reports that the police planning, presence and response to the Unite the Right rally Saturday in a Charlottesville park was woefully inadequate, including a failure to keep the two sides separated and to bar people from entering the park with clubs and other weapons. But that is a crowd control issue, not a free speech issue, and the two must not be conflated.
It is in fractious times like these that we must hold firmest to constitutional principles. Unfortunately, this nation has a history during times of stress of trampling the very rights we supposedly revere. A century ago, anarchists and leftists were arrested and in some cases deported because of their beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s it happened again in response to wars hot and cold. Fear and racism during World War II also propelled the establishment of internment camps for Japanese Americans, and a generation later the government reacted to protests over the Vietnam War by spying on American citizens exercising their right to free speech.
That is a dangerous path — one even more dangerous than a street brawl among political radicals. Violence at protests should be denounced no matter who perpetrates it, but the wrong response would be to silence those with whom we might not agree.
We would not urge anyone to avoid confronting and countering political or social ideas they might find disagreeable, or even hatefully reprehensible. But as a society, the nation cannot countenance its political debates descending into violence — or being preemptively shut down — no matter how noxious the ideas might be.
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