Hate speech is still speech

In the aftermath of the violence and fatalities that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., a couple of weeks ago, one of the leading criticisms from anti-racist groups was that city officials should never have let the white nationalists rally there in the first place.

It is true that the hate and bigotry that neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups spew are anathema to a liberal college town. For that matter, they should be anathema to all decent and civil places in this country, regardless of political leanings.

It would be a threat, however, to basic American freedoms to begin deciding, based on what individuals or groups say or believe, who has a right to enjoy these freedoms, and who doesn’t.

The test of embracing what it truly means to be an American is when someone exercises the freedoms embodied in the Bill of Rights with whom you vigorously disagree. There is no merit in defending the First Amendment only for those with whom you share the same perspective. The merit comes in defending these rights, such as free speech and freedom of assembly, as steadfastly for your foes as for your friends.

There has been an effort in this country recently to shut down or impede those on the far right from voicing their opinions. Liberal campuses have erupted in demonstrations, sometimes violent ones, that have prompted university administrators to cancel the appearances of ultraconservative speakers, or require that they make their remarks by remote rather than in front of a live audience.

The censors say that hate speech doesn’t deserve the same treatment as other forms of speech. But the Constitution makes no distinction between hate speech or love speech.

The risk with censoring the right is that it creates a precedent for censoring the left when the balance of power shifts.

This past week, Troy Brown Sr. and his son, Troy Jr., held a peaceable assembly on the Leflore County Courthouse lawn to call for the creation of a monument to those who defeated slavery and racial discrimination, or removal of the century-old Confederate monument that honors those who fought unsuccessfully to preserve slavery.

No one tried to deny the Browns’ right to speak. In another era, though, that’s exactly what would have happened. A half-century or so ago, they would have been shut down and possibly arrested for disturbing the peace, because what they were saying would have been considered subversive to the segregationists in power.


Refill Café is a developing organization, run by Jeff Good, that will open late this year.