As Popehat puts, the recent demonstration in South Carolina is a worst-case hypothetical — do we support free speech even when Nazis and white supremacists are marching in the streets, spitting hatred at Jews, packing heat and in one case mowing down protesters (and celebrating the death of one victim).
For a number of liberals (I don’t have a statistical measure) the response is “screw free speech for Nazis.” They wouldn’t grant ours, why should we grant theirs? For others, Nazis cross the line: ” 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.”
And it is threatening. It’s hardly new — the far right was rumbling about the need for a new American revolution back in the Clinton era — but it’s bolder and louder than I think it’s been since I came to this country.
Legally, however, being a Nazi and spouting Nazi beliefs is free speech. And I think it should be. Not so much for the practical benefits (I’ll get to that in a minute) but I believe a country where people are free to advocate for their beliefs, even evil beliefs, is better than one where they’re not. I believe speaking back or out-protesting them are better alternatives.
There are lots of exceptions to this, of course. Actual death threats, online harassment, offline harassment (like Jeremy Christian’s verbal assault on two Muslim women) slander, libel, intimidation, conspiracy to commit crimes, none of those deserve protection under the First Amendment. And I don’t think the right to assemble and the right to free speech translate into the right to bring heavy firepower if a city wants to ban it (I don’t think in situations like this it’s a violation of the Second Amendment either). But I still think the alt.right should be free to speak.
The alleged practical benefits are that a)if people are allowed to speak, it exposes everyone to more ideas and increases the chance of an unpopular truth winning out and b)if the government has the power to shut down bad speech, who’s to say it won’t find your speech is bad.
On the first, I find myself less optimistic than I used to be. Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the far right ranters have been pumping extremist rhetoric into the body politic for more than two decades now (and it’s not stopping), and it’s definitely pushed a lot of America to the right (and contributed to the rise of fascism). Lots of conservatives will not be won over to a better way. I think misogynist internet sites have a similar effect. There’s no guarantee truth will win out.
On the second, it’s perfectly true that a government that can ban “hate speech” can easily decide that Black Lives Matter or the Southern Poverty Law Center is a hate group. But I’m not sure that refusing to ban Nazis will stop that. If there’s one thing Republicans have demonstrated in the 21st century, it’s that they’re completely uninterested in precedent: if they can find a way to ban speech they don’t like, they’ll do it whether the left extends them the same courtesy or not. Nobody’s pushing to ban Christianity for instance, but plenty of the religious right are cool with banning Islam. The Bush II years were full of demands that liberals STF about the president — questioning him only aids the terrorists! A belief they immediately dropped when Obama got elected.
But the solution to that is to give free speech the strongest protections in law that we can. Not to sign on with the banners. The U.S. jettisoned a lot of its Fourth and Fifth amendment principles after 9/11 (right to a speedy trial, right to habeas corpus, right not to be held without evidence, etc.). We’re not any safer and we’re not better off because of them.
Even in the face of the hate, I still advocate for free speech.