If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. — Noam Chomsky
Some argue that white supremacist “hate speech” should be suppressed. But an unavoidable hazard of shutting down one type of speech, is that the rationale for doing so can always be applied to other speech. A “shut down speech” movement will inevitably enlarge its range of targets. And eventually the right to free speech will be lost.
Recent attacks on conservative groups and speakers are a case study, in real time, of this process. Under the guise of combatting “hate speech,” protesters are attacking and shutting down any and all speech deemed “conservative.”
Earlier this month a group called Boston Free Speech, a self-described “coalition of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and independents” seeking “to peaceably engage in open dialogue about the threats to, and importance of, free speech and civil liberties” tried to hold a rally on Boston Common. The tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia, having occurred only a week earlier, the group took pains before the rally to condemn white nationalism: “[W]e will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry,” it wrote on its Facebook page. “We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence. . . . There is a lot of misinformation in the media slandering our name by likening our organization to those that ran the Charlottesville rally. THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!”
But denouncing racism and white nationalism was not enough. Boston Free Speech was taking a “conservative” position, apparently, by supporting free speech, and so the shut-down-speech movement went into action. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh called Boston Free Speech a “hate” group and said they “were not welcome in Boston.” Forty thousand “counter-protesters” showed up carrying signs reading “Smash White Supremacy” and “Fight the KKK.” One counter-protest said he was there to “show support for the black community and for all minority communities.”
The 50 or so rally-goers were evacuated under police protection, and a 17-year old participant, who identified himself only as “Steve,” was shaken by the incident. “I thought I was going to die out there,” he said, refusing to give his last name to avoid retaliation.
Afterwards, the slurs against the rally participants continued. Like a scene from 1984, the event was repeatedly described as a clash between hate-filled white nationalists and brave freedom fighters. The Associated Press reported the counter-protest as “a boisterous repudiation of white nationalism.” CNN headlined its report: “Thousands March Against Hate.” Boston’s Mayor Walsh heaped praise on the 40,000 counter-protesters. “It’s clear today that Boston stood for peace and love,” said Walsh, “not bigotry and hate.” Even Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross, whose police officers at one point tweeted a request that people “refrain from throwing urine, bottles and other harmful projectiles at our officers,” described the counter-protesters as “anti-racism demonstrators” and encouraged them to celebrate their victory against “hate.” “They want to put us down because of what we look like, our lifestyles, where we came from ― it’s not happening in Boston,” Gross said.
Boston was merely one of an ever-growing list of “shut down” attacks on conservatives. Charles Murray, libertarian author of Coming Apart and other books, was accused of supporting “genocidal white supremacist ideologies” and was shouted down and physically attacked at Middlebury College in March, 2017. This, he noted later, was new. At prior speeches he had faced protesters, but had always been allowed to speak. Middlebury was ominously different.
Portland, Oregon’s 10th annual Rose Parade was cancelled in April 2017 because of threatened violence against a “hate group” – specifically, the Republican participants in the parade. “Antifascist” groups called Oregon Students Empowered and Direct Action Alliance threatened attacks on any Republican parade participants. “We will not give one inch,” an anonymous email stated, “to groups who espouse hatred.”
Heather MacDonald, author of The War on Cops, had her April 2017 speech at UCLA interrupted by students and other protesters storming the stage. The next day, her speech at Claremont McKenna College was cut short by protesters, and she had to be escorted away under police protection. A statement from a group identified as “students of color at the Claremont Colleges” called MacDonald a “notorious white supremacist fascist.”
The conservative group Patriot Prayer planned to hold a “free speech” rally in San Francisco on August 26, 2017, but cancelled the rally due to threats of violence. Despite having nothing to do with white nationalism, despite disavowing fascism – and despite the founder of Patriot Prayer, Joey Gibson, being of Japanese descent — the group was vigorously condemned by Nancy Pelosi, Democratic US congressman and House Minority Leader, as a “white supremacist” group. Before the rally was cancelled, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee practically demanded a violent counter-demonstration: “The shameful, anti-American trend of hate-filled extremist rallies will unfortunately be allowed to continue this weekend in our city.” The event was occasionally referred to as a “Nazi rally.”
Even hate speech is protected speech, and these events show one reason why: the desire to shut down speech never ends. If “hate speech” can be shut down, why stop at Nazis? Today, the shut-down targets are conservatives, but who will be targeted tomorrow?
We can decide to remain a free country, where racist-fascists are able to speak. Or we can give up on free speech, in order to shut down racist-fascist speech. If we choose the latter, the racist-fascists win.