Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?

Ron Jacobs

Editor’s note: Once we began to notice that some progressive colleagues were freaking out about Trump from one side of their mouths, and then, from the other, were admonishing gutsy anti-fascists and anti-racists for pushing back hard against celebrity bigots, we knew we needed to publish something to check these dangerous finger-waggers. Thanks to Ron Jacobs for this timely text.

Free speech is bullshit, at least in the way it is understood by most pundits in the United States. From the deposed Bill O’Reilly to the declawed Bernie Sanders; from the campaign trail to the halls of UC Berkeley, the misinterpretation of free speech in the USA remains an ongoing hot button topic.

Right wing bigots full of hate convince witless College Republicans to pay fascist speakers to speak at the college of their choice. Of course, the right wing bigots know that any speaking engagement featuring their hate-filled tirades will provoke a backlash against that engagement. Faculty and students will call for the cancellation of the speech and, when the speech is cancelled, the wannabe fascist will whine about the loss of their right to speak.

This moment is when the liberals weigh in. The sanctity of the right to free speech will be pulled from the trashbin where it was thrown decades ago by the Justice Department; liberals and right-wingers alike will wave their limp and meaningless flag of freedom in the face of those who oppose Hitler’s acolytes speaking on their campus. The liberals base their opposition to the protesters on a pretense that civil discourse is possible with people who champion the denial of human rights to most of humanity (if not their actual existence.)

It’s not like the fascist wannabes don’t have plenty of places to spread their swill. Their bank accounts indicate that they have an audience. Nor are they particularly interested in defending any right to free speech, real or imagined. They–like their undergraduate hosts–just want to stir up trouble and watch the liberals beat up on those to their political left. In instances where college administrators don’t back down and rescind those invitations to speak, the right-wingers hope for a protest. They hope that the protest will get out of hand when it is attacked by well-armed cops who have never given a shit about anyone’s rights, if they even think about such things.

The way I understand free speech is that the government cannot deny any group or individual the right to speak. There is no understanding in the law that prevents protesters from opposing views they find reprehensible; nor is there any provision that states protesters cannot use their protests to shout down a speaker. Nor does the understanding state that police have to protect a speaker who comes to provoke a crowd where they know their ideas are unwanted.

If there really was free speech in the United States, it would be the anarchists and communists who speak on street corners, in parks and at protests whose speech the police would be protecting, not the well-heeled representatives of the right wing.

Instead, as history and our own experience tell us repeatedly, it is the anarchists and leftists whose speech is most often curtailed. From the attacks on the IWW in the early Twentieth Century to the attacks on the Occupy movement; from the prosecution of communists and socialists to the trials of antiwar and Black liberation organizers in the 1960s and 1970s; from the passage of laws making certain leftist allegiances illegal to the murders of Black, Native American, and Latino activists–the history is clear. There is no free speech in the United States if one’s politics oppose the essential racism and economics of this nation.

Those on the left who decry the actions of the antiracist and anti-fascist protesters in Berkeley, Vermont and elsewhere around the United States fail to understand the aforementioned and essential fact. The right to free speech is selectively applied and selectively defended by the forces of law and order in the US.

There was very little police protection for those who protested Donald Trump during his campaign or inauguration. In fact, now Trump is claiming his right to free speech was denied by those protesters. Yet, it is the arrested protesters who are facing felony charges, not Donald Trump or his minions. This cannot be stated often enough: anyone who thinks the forces of law and order are going to defend their right to free speech is either on the same side as those forces or has not been paying attention.

Freedom of speech is a given for those in power and those who protect the powerful. It is also seems to be a given for most of those whose views represent the most reactionary elements of the powerful. This becomes clear when one considers the role police play in protecting nazis, klansmen, and other fascists when these individuals hold rallies and marches.

Personally, I can recall at least three times when I have been witness to such instances. The first was in 1967 in the Maryland town I lived in. After the Klan attempted to burn down a church and home in the African-American section of the town, the Black community raised their voices in protest. The town authorities refused to allow them to march. A week or two later, those same officials allowed a Klan march through the so-called Black part of the town.

The second instance took place seven years later at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Military recruiters had been invited on campus for the first time since the riots following the 1970 invasion of Cambodia. Naturally, we organized a protest. A few hundred students stood several rows deep in a blockade around the table the Marines were manning. Various frat boys attempted to break through the blockade in some show of solidarity with those few good men. After one of them grabbed a woman by her hair and pushed her down, we reacted. The police wound up arresting the woman. Later, they also arrested a couple other folks from another campus who had been involved in organizing the protest.

The third instance was at a nazi rally in Walnut Creek, California. Not only were the hundreds of us protesting the nazis forced to undergo patdowns for weapons, we were also forced to linger inside a chain link fence penned in by various police officers wearing lots of armor. Meanwhile, the nazis (all eight of them) were brought to their rally site in police cars and protected by police officers who not only stood around them while they harangued Jews, Blacks and many other identity groups, but also took them away from the rally site in those same police cruisers. If it wasn’t actual collusion between the police and the nazis, it certainly looked like it.

In short, don’t fall for the argument that freedom of speech is sacrosanct and should be placed above any objections one might have to a speaker’s ideas and politics. The very definition of free speech in US society is determined by where one stands in relation to those who run this country. Not only is the concept of freedom of speech certain to be manipulated by those who have no intention of defending your free speech, it is an argument based on false assumptions. If Anne Coulter, Milo Y, or some other fascist wannabe wants to exercise their free speech, let them stand out in the middle of Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza or some other public space like the rest of us and make their speech. Then, and only then, is it genuinely free.

 

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