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On the violence in Charlottesville

We at FIRE were deeply saddened to hear about the violent response to counter-protesters against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, which resulted in the death of civil rights advocate Heather Heyer and serious injuries to many others.

As we’ve written before, we cannot condemn strongly enough those who respond to peaceful expression with violence. The perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Following Saturday’s tragic events, we are now seeing condemnation of civil liberties organizations for defending the expressive rights of hateful people. The ACLU of Virginia, for example, has been criticized for defending the First Amendment rights of white nationalists to protest in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. Many of these critics essentially argue that punishment should be meted out not just to those who commit heinous acts but also to those who espouse abhorrent viewpoints, however defined.

This is a misguided argument. Political violence is the antithesis of speech and must be met with punishment under the law, or more such violence will follow. But protected speech must remain free from punishment under the law, even when expressing hateful ideas, or else our First Amendment rights are only as powerful as the government permits them to be.  

As journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday for The Intercept, we must not submit to the urge to curtail fundamental rights in the wake of tragedy, nor scapegoat those who defend those rights. Greenwald writes:

The flaws and dangers in this anti-free speech mindset are manifest, but nonetheless always worth highlighting, especially when horrific violence causes people to want to abridge civil liberties in the name of stopping it. In sum, purporting to oppose fascism by allowing the state to ban views it opposes is like purporting to oppose human rights abuses by mandating the torture of all prisoners.

Freedom of expression is a principle that must be protected even when its defenders disapprove of the speaker’s underlying message, or it will not be defensible when it is one’s own speech at risk of censorship or punishment. Greenwald makes a critically important point about what would-be censors are asking for:

[T]he contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU [for its defense of the First Amendment rights of white nationalists in Charlottesville], it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

Some may question whether a discussion of speech is appropriate when life has been lost. But it is precisely at times like this — when tragedy or malevolence leaves us most willing to sacrifice our rights — that the defense of civil liberties is most important.  

It nauseates me to see such horrible things happening in the city I called home for four years. But I also began my free speech advocacy in earnest there, sometimes even physically tending to the huge rock chalkboard that is Charlottesville’s prominent and permanent celebration of free expression on the Historic Downtown Mall. We can’t forget the principles that inspired that monument, regardless of the provocation.

Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and friends, and the beautiful city of Charlottesville.

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