Let the Creeps Speak

But push back loudly.

The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., has some on the left questioning whether free speech should have greater limits.

I have a friend who has always subscribed to an expansive definition of free speech. In the wake of the protests in August, however, he has back peddled some, and he now questions whether the notion of free speech is always defensible, because hate speech can be “actual violence against marginalized and oppressed people.”

It’s a difficult issue. As a college professor, I am highly aware of how my speech — as a white authority figure — might be received by my students. And I’m also conscious that there have to be limits within the classroom to allow for open dialogue. It seems contradictory, I know, but it would be irresponsible for me to allow one or two students to dominate discussion or to bully other students into silence or to change their opinions.

But the classroom is a very different place than the broader society. It’s goals are different and students who enter the door should understand that there are rules that govern an array of behaviors.

This brings me back to my friend’s changing views of speech — and the apparent shift among some (a small minority, I suspect) liberals and leftists toward a more restrictive view of free expression.

Jordan Marley, a blogger at the Huffington Post, makes the argument that “freedom of speech does not, and should not, include Nazis.” Because they believe “their race and ethnicity is superior to others, and they will never hold back on taking any means necessary to spread their ideology into society,” they pose a special danger to the broader American culture.

“White nationalists in America have a history of killing, beating and torturing minorities simply because of their race and nothing more,” he writes. “Why should people who have these beliefs be allowed to gather en masse, and purposefully cause racial tension and fear among citizens?”

I can’t argue with his characterization of groups like the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan. But I fear that this new push to exclude some from the First Amendment’s protections — not just speech, but religion, the press, assembly and the right to petition the government — is short sighted.

That’s because restrictions on speech targeting individual groups are too often used to go after other groups — especially those who are most vulnerable and who have the least power in society. We’ve moved too far in this direction already, with efforts to make the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement illegal, and the fellow-traveler rules attached to many anti-terrorism laws.

We could argue that this shows a history of exception that makes carving out these loopholes acceptable. We shouldn’t though, because the loopholes infringe upon our ability to speak out. I’m not arguing that Nazis be given a free ride. On the contrary. We should confront them at every turn, challenge every single statement they make, every word they utter.

Consider the Catholic priest or Baptist minister who says gays are damned to hell. His speech grows from his (warped) interpretation of scripture. It easily could be viewed as hate speech that might warrant censorship were we to allow a more restrictive reading of the First Amendment. But censoring the Catholic priest would violate both his free speech rights and religious liberties.

The Catholic Church and the Nazis are not the same, of course. The Nazis have a history of genocide, of rounding up Jews and others for extermination, of conquest. As for the church? It has a history of forced conversions, a brutal Inquisition, the Crusades — a history of religious intolerance and violence nearly as gruesome as what we witnessed in the 20th Century.

I’m not looking to equate the two. The church, of course, has denounced its history and has made efforts at making amends. The American Nazi movement and other racist groups see themselves as a vanguard to protect whiteness from the other, and endorse violence.

My point is that speech restrictions on one group cannot easily be fenced in, that other groups are very likely to find themselves targeted, as well.

It doesn’t mean we have to sit back and listen. The mistake is to assume you can say what you want without response, without scrutiny, without protest. Ann Coulter can speak, but I can show up and make my response. Free speech does not mean others can’t speak back — even when religion is involved. The Nazis can march — though the open-carry of firearms was an act of intimidation — but we can show up and speak more loudly, can demonstrate that these creeps are s small minority and nothing more than vile bigots who should be shunned. What we can’t do is empower the government to act as arbiter of what is acceptable.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog, kalet; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram, @kaletwrites; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017

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