Hate speech is ab­hor­rent, ban­ning it is even worse

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum - Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch.

Last week­end’s events in Char­lottesville, along with the threat of fu­ture protests by white su­prem­a­cist groups, have sparked a na­tional de­bate about plac­ing le­gal lim­its on hate speech. The think­ing is that some views are so ab­hor­rent that they should be banned, and their ad­vo­cates should not be al­lowed to as­sem­ble in pub­lic.

As long as it’s still le­gal to do so, we’d like to de­clare our ab­hor­rence at the sug­ges­tion.

The rights of free speech and free assem­bly are bedrock prin­ci­ples of Amer­i­can democ­racy and ma­jor rea­sons why Amer­ica’s founders re­volted against Bri­tish rule. There was a time when speak­ing against the Bri­tish monar­chy was deemed trea­sonous and sub­ject to prison or even death. Even to­day, it’s tech­ni­cally il­le­gal to call for abo­li­tion of the monar­chy.

In the United States, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white su­prem­a­cist groups are at­tempt­ing a resur­gence, bol­stered in no small part by the sym­pa­thetic un­der­tone of re­marks is­sued on the cam­paign trail and in the White House by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. As re­pug­nant as those groups are, it’s even more ab­hor­rent to con­tem­plate trash­ing the First Amend­ment to sti­fle their free speech.

Ahead of Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, ex­treme left-wing groups be­gan us­ing the slo­gan “Punch a Nazi” as they ad­vo­cated vi­o­lent in­ter­ven­tion to halt demon­stra­tions by far-right groups. One self-de­clared anti-fas­cist punched white su­prem­a­cist Richard Spencer, a Trump sup­porter, in the face on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day while he was be­ing in­ter­viewed on a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., street. It was not OK then, nor will it ever be.

Daryle La­mont Jenk­ins, a mem­ber of the anti-fas­cist move­ment, told Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio on Thurs­day that vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion is jus­ti­fi­able when po­lice won’t stop white su­prem­a­cists from march­ing. In other words, he be­lieves in il­le­gal vig­i­lante ac­tion when po­lice refuse to vi­o­late marchers’ con­sti­tu­tional rights.

Imag­ine how quickly our coun­try would de­scend into an­ar­chy if vig­i­lante ac­tion ever did be­come jus­ti­fi­able. The minute it be­comes ac­cept­able to break the law to si­lence one group, all oth­ers be­come vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack by any­one who dis­agrees with them.

That’s why the Supreme Court has re­peat­edly struck down gov­ern­ment at­tempts to ban hate speech.

“A law that can be di­rected against speech found of­fen­sive to some por­tion of the pub­lic can be turned against mi­nor­ity and dis­sent­ing views to the detri­ment of all. The First Amend­ment does not en­trust that power to the gov­ern­ment’s benev­o­lence. In­stead, our re­liance must be on the sub­stan­tial safe­guards of free and open dis­cus­sion in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety,” wrote Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy in one as­sent­ing opin­ion this year.

Com­pa­nies such as Twit­ter and Face­book have a le­gal right to limit how cus­tomers use their sites. The gov­ern­ment doesn’t. The mo­ment Amer­i­cans em­power the gov­ern­ment to tell them what they can and can­not say, our na­tion and its cher­ished demo­cratic prin­ci­ples will be doomed.

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