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Editorial: Donald Trump’s candidacy challenges liberals’ commitment to free speech

Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy has had many noxious effects, from the coarsening of political debate to the craven decision of many Republican leaders – Speaker of the House Paul Ryan among them – to endorse the blowhard businessman even as they condemn his reckless and racially offensive remarks.

In recent days it has become clear that the Trump phenomenon has caused some of his critics to question – wrongly in our view – two fundamental premises of American democracy. One is the proposition that political protest must be peaceful. The other is that, as the Supreme Court put it in a landmark 1st Amendment case, even “hurtful speech on public issues” must be protected “to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Angered by Trump’s rhetoric, protesters repeatedly have engaged in violence and intimidation. For example, outside a Trump event in San Jose on June 2, demonstrators jumped on cars, pelted Trump supporters with eggs and water balloons and grabbed “Make America Great” hats from supporters’ heads before setting them afire. Several people were caught on camera punching Trump supporters.

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This sort of violence is outrageous, yet some have sought to rationalize such conduct as the logical and perhaps even necessary reaction to Trump’s hateful rhetoric. Those who condemn the violence on free-speech grounds are dismissed by some commentators as naïve about the threat Trump poses.

In a column in the Huffington Post, Jesse Benn (who describes himself as an “engaged citizen” and “opinionated writer”) wrote that “denunciations of violence from anti-Trump protesters rest on the misguided view that the divide Trump’s exposed is a typical political disagreement between partisans, and should be handled as such... Treating this like politics as usual allows it to become politics as usual, and those who do so risk complicity ushering in a new era of fascist politics in the United States. Violence that takes place at Trump rallies — in support or opposition – is a reaction to the tone he’s set, and the blame for it should land primarily on his shoulders.”

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t go that far, but she, too, linked anti-Trump violence to the Republican candidate’s incendiary rhetoric. “He created an environment in which it seemed to be acceptable for someone running for president to be inciting violence, to be encouraging his supporters,” Clinton told CNN. “Now we’re seeing people who are against him responding in kind. It should all stop. It is not acceptable.”

Donald Trump’s rhetoric ... [is] ugly and offensive. But [that doesn’t] justify violence against his supporters or an attack on their exercise of free speech.

It’s true that Trump’s language, though it falls short of constituting legal incitement to violence, has been ugly and reckless – and this page has called him on it. This, after all, is the candidate who said of a protester that he’d like to punch him in the face, and who longed for the “old days” when hecklers were “carried out on a stretcher.”

But neither Trump’s rhetoric nor the fact that his supporters may engage in violence excuses violence or disruption on the other side. President Obama got it right: “We saw in San Jose these protesters starting to pelt stuff on Trump supporters. That’s not what our democracy is about. That’s not what you do. There’s no room for violence. There’s no place for shouting.”

Obama made another point that applies not only to violence but to the second challenge to democracy: an unwillingness to let Trump and his supporters have their say. “There’s no room,” the president said, “for a politics that fails to at least listen to the other side – even if you vehemently disagree.” That message needs to taken to heart by those who argue that Trump’s message is so offensive that it must be suppressed, shouted down or shamed as “hate speech.”

During the recent academic year, students at several universities criticized pro-Trump slogans that were written in chalk on campus sidewalks. At Emory University, a coalition of student groups complained that expressions of support for Trump’s candidacy posed a “threat to our democracy and an implicit attack on the Muslim, Latin[o], black and other communities at Emory and across the country. This is not political expression; this is hate speech.” In Fresno a third-grader was asked by school officials to remove his “Make America Great Again” hat because it supposedly caused a “substantial disruption [of a]verbal nature” and a “detrimental impact to school climate.”

Many commentators have pointed out that violence by anti-Trump protesters plays into the candidate’s hands. “I know the depths of emotions that have come out,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “But somebody who thinks they’re being helpful by throwing an egg – I would say that’s a tactical mistake.” It’s more than that; it’s wrong in itself and subversive of democracy.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric and much of his platform – deporting 11 million immigrants, building a wall on the Mexican border, forbidding all Muslims to enter the country – are ugly and offensive. But they don’t justify violence against his supporters or an attack on their exercise of free speech. There is no “Trump exception” to the 1st Amendment.

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