Free speech protects unpopular opinions, not dangerous ones
A star NFL quarterback has been blacklisted for daring to protest the national anthem on behalf of a minority community. Violence has erupted on college campuses all over the country in response to ‘alt-right’ rallies and controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos. A Harvard-educated Google employee was fired for writing a manifesto saying women are biologically inferior to men.
Freedom of speech and expression and its limitations has become the defining sociopolitical issue of our era. The burning question on everyone’s minds today is whether or not hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
The answer is “Yes.” There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.
Justice Samuel Alito of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thoughts that we hate.”
As with every law however, there are certain expectations. SCOTUS established in 1919 with Schenck v. United States that while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, it does not protect dangerous speech or rhetoric that could lead to “imminent lawless action.”
The modern alt-right movement is a modern coalition of neo-Nazism, filled with white supremacy, antisemitism, fascism, homophobia, and misogyny. Having existed on the fringes of society for decades, they were suddenly catapulted into the spotlight due to the actions of a few individuals such as Stephen Bannon, Richard Spencer, and of course, the leader of the free world.
On Nov. 8th, 2016, this movement achieved their biggest coup yet — they successfully managed to gain supporters and sympathizers in all three branches of the government in one fell swoop. The bigger surprise, however, has been how ineffectual this coalition has been. Legislation such as the transgender military ban, building a wall across the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border, and Trump’s cooperation with “Chuck and Nancy” to formalize Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) seems to indicate that the alt-right legislative agenda has amounted to a complete failure.
Even though there hasn’t been a definitive legislative accomplishment yet, that’s not to say the alt-right hasn’t been victorious in its own right. News about the alt-right has become commonplace and while many of their actions would’ve triggered outrage just a year ago, now it’s the new normal. The 24-hour media cycle has led to us forget that the president not only refused to denounce white supremacy, but actively defended it.
This has further emboldened proponents of this flawed ideology to further spread their vitriol. Their new argument is that they can say whatever they feel like saying — no matter its effect — due to the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression.
These claims are simply false.
The First Amendment only protects freedom of expression when it is evident it will not lead to imminent violence. The very purpose of these “free speech” rallies and demonstrations is to incite anarchy. In fact, the very purpose of the alt-right coalition is to encourage violence against specific minority and marginalized communities such as black communities and the LGBTQ community, for example.
These groups defend themselves by saying that their rallies are protected under the First Amendment. Their claims that they’re here for a peaceful demonstration fall flat when they march on streets armed to the teeth. They not only violated their 400 people protest permit in Charlottesville, but explicitly told all attendees to bring their firearms with them. If that’s not preparing for bloodshed, I don’t know what is.
We have learned, however, that just because those who belong to the alt-right, or at least sympathize with them, occupy positions of extreme importance in our government doesn’t mean that they can continue to propagate hatred without consequences.
The Twitter account @YesYoureRacist solicited the identities of those who attended the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August. After discovering these identities, employers were notified that certain employees were white supremacists — and these companies now faced a choice. They could either defend the indefensible, or they could let these people go.
There was no contest. The response was swift and immediate. Cole White was fired from his job at Top Dog, a popular hot dog restaurant in Berkeley, California. The website hosting service GoDaddy removed the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer off its servers. The aforementioned actions have led to companies such as PayPal, Airbnb, and Google, which suspended the accounts of alt-right users, to be sued under the claim that these firings are in direct violation to the First Amendment — that one cannot fire an employee for their political views.
This is patently false.
The government cannot censor speech; however, the same does not apply to the private sector. These individuals are fired not for their political views but for rather how their actions reflect upon their employer. No one is fired for being liberal or conservative but rather for being white supremacist, misogynistic, or homophobic. This was also the case for the participants of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville.
The lesson we should learn from this incident is that we cannot stop people from supporting causes that persecute minorities — but we can ensure real world consequences for them. Hate speech might be protected from censorship by the government; however, that doesn’t equate to people being able to encourage violence against a specific community without ramifications.
Free speech has its limitations. We cannot always depend on the government to protect our individual rights, but that doesn’t stop us from doing so ourselves. If the President of the United States won’t denounce bigotry, we will. Just because the government allows people to denigrate others, it doesn’t mean that we have to.