Free Speech (Or: In Defense of Punching Nazis)

One of the most common justifications for hate speech we hear, and certainly read online in response to criticisms, is the necessity to protect our First Amendment right to free speech. This is a legitimate concern, especially for historically marginalized communities, as the freedom of speech, expression, religion, and the right to peacefully assemble make possible the movements that lead to their empowerment. Unfortunately, what we see alarmingly often today are groups using their freedom of speech to attempt to marginalize already-disadvantaged communities. And when those groups are met with violence – like this – the reaction is outrage and indignation on behalf of the hate group.

Allow me to make a few statements: First, I believe the Bill of Rights is one of the most progressive and defining pieces of writing of modern government. The freedoms outlined in those first ten amendments have been crucial to securing the continued existence and improvement of the Greatest Country on Earth, and freedom of speech should continue to be protected at all costs. Second, Nazis are bad. Racists are bad. Confederate rebels, who attempted to rebel against the United States for the singular purpose of upholding the institution of slavery and caused the deaths of more Americans than all of our other wars combined, are bad. Anybody who claims to be a Nazi or Neo-Nazi, is a member of the KKK, or sympathizes with an openly racist cause that lost over a hundred and fifty years ago, is self-proclaiming bigotry and hate. Can we operate under the assumption that pretty much everybody can agree with those two statements? If you don’t, this next part probably won’t be for you, but honestly, America probably won’t be for you either.

A quick google search of ‘freedom of speech’ will turn up this definition: “Freedom of Speech is the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction.” But that last part isn’t quite what it means in America, at least Constitutionally. “Societal Sanction” or the reaction people, citizens, might have to your speech is not mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The actual text reads: “Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” See the difference? Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, but neither Congress nor any other body of government has any obligation or ability to litigate public perception of speech, and is in no way required to provide a platform for any form of speech.

This means, as long as Congress or state or local governments don’t pass any laws restricting speech, public reaction is no longer an issue of free speech. Those students protesting a far-right speaker in Berkeley have a stronger free-speech-based argument when they are arrested protesting than the speaker has if they successfully disrupt his event. There is no constitutional basis for their argument that Berkeley students should ‘listen to opposing views’. While I happen to believe it is important to read and hear views different from your own, and I wish more students would be open to listening to what these people say (if only because understanding the reasons people have opposing views helps us work towards solutions, even if those views are morally reprehensible), it is also ludicrous to invoke the first amendment in cases of “I said something and people didn’t like it; I feel attacked.” If you want to say something stupid or hurtful or rude, you have every right and full protection of the U.S. government to do so. You do not, however, have their protection from whatever shitstorm of twitter hate and public shaming such an action would inevitably produce, including getting knocked TF out by one of your fellow citizens.

“But violence is never the answer,” says the person praising Florida’s stand-your-ground laws after a private citizen shot Trayvon Martin; or the person rallying support for U.S. military intervention in a place they can’t even pick out on a map. See, when self-defense is brought up, many conservatives have nothing but praise and folksy anecdotes about Grammy protecting the family homestead with a gun. And that’s great; it’s one of the great parts about America, you have a right to defend yourself. But if you want to apply self-defense so liberally to a range of subjects, including our military, then that protection should extend to people who see symbols of racism such as the confederate flag and the swastika as personal threats to their well-being. Confederate sympathizers argue that the flag is a symbol of pride for southerners, tradition, and heritage. That may be true, but the Confederate Flag is also literally the most recognizable symbol of the Confederate States of America, a collection of rebel states that took up arms against its own country and started a war to continue owning slaves. That was the one and only reason for the Confederate flag’s existence, and it is a symbol of that legacy to everybody who is not blinded by bigotry. Similarly, Nazi memorabilia and the swastika flag are symbols of Nazi hatred and their attempt to exterminate Jews and other minority groups. Displaying or wearing these symbols of hatred and any pro-Nazi or white-supremacist speech, Constitutionally, is itself an act of violence, as it is promoting and inciting lawless action, i.e. the extermination of non-white ethnic groups. And, when an act of violence targets you or your family’s well-being, you have every right to defend yourself accordingly. So, next time you feel personally threatened or you fear for your family’s safety because of the hateful, bigoted rhetoric spewing from a self-proclaimed racist’s mouth, consider yourself legally entitled to knock him TF out.

Now here’s another video of somebody doing just that.

Jake is a college student studying political science at UCSB.

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