Some Thoughts of Freedom of Speech

“And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.
    “An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust.
    “On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
— Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
A commenter on Jim Wright’s recent post at Stonekettle Station (link) suggested that to condemn Nazism and white supremacy missed a ”bigger point”: “defending someone’s right to free speach does not mean you agree with what they are saying. As to the Charlottesville mess there were two groups involved and both share the blame for what happened.”

Jim’s response to this, to sum up was: ”…freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of that speech.”

I would argue that the bigger point, in this case, is the spiritual one. Let’s be clear: The white nationalists advocate forcible removal of people they consider “other” from our shared nation. They are offering an existential threat to a wide swathe—possibly even the majority—of our population. I know that by their standards, though I look “white”, I and my family and most of our friends fall on the wrong side of their line in the sand.

Having said that, the white nationalists, as Jim aptly points out, have every right to say what they want. I personally believe that, short of them offering imminent threat to those they threaten verbally, any control or censure of that speech needs to come from within them. In plain English, they need to grow up or grow a pair or simply grow as human beings. That’s between them and their God and their own souls/consciences.

However, Jim is absolutely correct that freedom of speech does not absolve one of freedom from the consequences of that speech. The government does not have the authority to stop people from speaking their mind—witness the proliferation of media platforms for hate speech and conspiracy theories that abound in this nation, regardless of whether a “liberal” or “conservative” administration is in authority. This does not mean that other citizens cannot exercise their own right of free speech and free assembly to counter what another group proposes. And do it in the most public and passionate way at their disposal.

Much is made of the fact that some of the counter protesters in Charlottesville threw bottles filled with urine at the white nationalists. Compared to the verbiage and sentiment that those same nationalists were spewing—and had been since the night before during the torch rally—those bottles were filled with perfume.

We are a sad people if we really believe that hurling a bottle of urine is somehow more harmful, more heinous, than hurling racial or religious epithets that single out groups for annihilation.

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