One definition of Freedom of Speech is: the right, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction.
A critical question that has arisen from the Charlottesville riot is whether radical, violent groups like the KKK, skinheads and Neo Nazis have a right to demonstrate and protest even if their perspectives are repugnant to most Americans. Simply stated, can one group verbally attack another group on religious or cultural grounds and be protected by the Constitution? The answer is not so simple.
The aforementioned groups would likely cite the Constitution to justify their right to march for white supremacy. But Freedom of Speech is not absolutely free. In fact many scholars believe that there are a number of unprotected forms of expression that include: obscenity, fighting words, defamation (including slander and libel), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to commit lawless actions, true threats and solicitations to commit crimes. The protesters in Virginia expressed their hatred of minorities and the supremacy of their kind. Surely this would fall into a few of the unprotected categories mentioned above.
Yet the police did not act quickly enough and protesting morphed into a full-fledged riot. Should the police have challenged the right of the marchers on the grounds indicated above? Probably so, but this type of assessment straddles a fine legal and judgmental line. Unfortunately the anti-protestors began to fight with the protestors and one woman died, two police officers lost their lives and scores of people were injured.
Some scholars make the case that censorship is not the best way to fight bigotry, nor is physical engagement by opposing groups. Learned people also say that freedom of speech is the basis for the other rights delineated in the Constitution (freedom of religion, press, assembly and government petition). In other words without free speech, these other rights would be diminished.
Rather, public discourse about repugnant opinions gives everyone an opportunity to openly denigrate cancerous societal perspectives. It is easier to discredit bias and discrimination when the vast majority of Americans can understand the pros and cons of such viewpoints.
Does speech that is insulting to a group cross a line? Can a protestor carry a sign that mocks another group? Can a protestor make a speech that proclaims the supremacy of his group over others? Who must make the determination about the constitutionality of such an event or speech? A judge may not always be available. Usually licenses to protest are granted by municipalities. If there is a resistance to do so a judge may intercede. But seldom will a judge opine about what speakers may say and what kind of signs protestors may carry before the event takes place.
In the case of Charlottesville the protest by supremacists did incite a riot. The interface between the protestors and the anti-protestors led to skirmishes, injuries and property damage. But the reporting indicates that both sides were looking for a fight. The latter is telling. It is the premeditation of violence that may trump the right of free speech.
We must allow all sides of an issue to be aired in public forums if we want to insure real freedom of speech. Unfortunately peace loving, kind and tolerant people must standby and allow hideous people to express their hideous opinions. If not who will be the judge about what is or is not free speech.
One only needs to look back to the 1960s to appreciate how peaceful protest can evolve into chaos. Protestors, anti-protestors and even the police instigated violence. Surely no one would question the objectives of the peaceniks or the freedom fighters during those years. Nevertheless violence was commonplace. In fact the most violent peaceniks (an oxymoron) resorted to explosives and murder, and police beat protestors regularly.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries understood that protest must be civil and peaceful to gain an appropriate notoriety and empathy for the cause.