What Donald Trump Should Have Said After Charlottesville.
In 1977, the ACLU defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march through Skokie, Illinois, through a neighborhood where many survivors of the Holocaust lived, and even defended the KKK’s right to wear Swastikas! The motive of the KKK was not love, but hate. Yet the ACLU argued that censoring certain speech or forms of expression gave the government too much power that could be used against any particular group of people at any time, if that group fell out of favor. In other words, if the KKK could be censored and not permitted to march, so too could gay pride marches be banned.
The ACLU holds that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, also protects the rights of those who express things we hate and find repulsive. The Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Illinois found that merely expressing reprehensible views is not a legitimate reason to suppress that speech, no matter how offensive it is. The First Amendment is necessary to a democracy and to a free people, lest the government begin to decide who does and who does not have the right to speak. If that right is lost to the people, then whatever majority is in power can then take away our right to speak and protest.
By the same token, freedom of speech does not justify any violence in support of those views. But equally, it does not extend a right to others to use violence to stop, prevent or oppose those views. Unfortunately, we saw violence of both sides of this clash in Charlottesville, and it is symptomatic of our deep divide in our country. Racism is hatred, and it isn’t right; but opposing hate with hatred does not end racism.
The question we face is whether we are willing to abandon the right of free speech and destroy our history and our democracy, simply because some group expresses hateful or offensive ideas? If we do, we are becoming the very thing we say we hate… we become like the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, where any views that do not align with the party line can be oppressed, punished by force and imprisonment. We know where that ends. It ends in a dictatorship or madness like we have witnessed with ISIS.
In the 1960’s, the governments of several states tried to prevent Civil Rights marches with billy clubs and water hoses. They beat the protestors, threw them in jail, and murdered some. Yet the federal government protected their right to speak, to march and to protest. Today, we are required to do the same for all factions of our society; whether they be in the minority or the majority; whether they be right or wrong.
So the question is, how should we respond to those who espouse hatred of any race or class of people?
Martin Luther King, Jr. faced this same problem in the Civil Rights movement. He said that God had called us to love our enemies, but he did not call us to like our enemies, for that would be “impossible.” It is impossible to like those who hate you and want to abuse you, but it is possible to love them. To love them means you might have to suffer in order to change their conscience. His eloquent defense of non-violent protest is recorded in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I encourage everyone to read it.
That being said, the actions that led to the death of the innocent, produced by this same hatred that caused the death of many Civil Rights workers, can be punished by force of law. But if we respond to hate with hate, we have become no better than those who oppose us. Hate will not bring reconciliation or cause our nation to come together as one people. And we also need to grow up as a people. We cannot hide ourselves from every offensive thought or remark. We cannot put up safe zones that protect us from every “trigger” or wall ourselves off from everything that makes us uncomfortable. The free flow of ideas in a democracy requires us to listen and hear the ideas of others. It does not require us to agree with those views, but we must be willing to endure them.
That which unites us as a people, is greater than what divides us, if we will focus on love and helping one another. And as a government, we may disagree with what someone says, but we must also defend to the death their right to say it. That is the meaning of free speech.