White supremacist groups and counter-protesters clash at a demonstration earlier...

White supremacist groups and counter-protesters clash at a demonstration earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va. Credit: TNS / Michael Nigro / Pacific Press

The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a far-right rally led to violent clashes with counter-protesters and to a deadly vehicular assault by a white supremacist, has prompted new debate about the limits of free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union, usually a right-wing boogeyman, has come under fire from some on the left for defending the white supremacists’ right to assemble. Some argue that civil libertarians should rethink their defense of hate speech. But government restrictions are not the only issue. Are activists ever justified in using coercion to shut down dangerous speech? Should we applaud corporations that use their clout to make it more difficult for haters to preach hate? Where does the slippery slope to loss of freedom begin?

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville seemed tailor-made to test even the most dedicated champion of free speech: it featured swastika flags, racist slogans and anti-Semitic chants. Rallygoers surrounded a black church and stood outside a synagogue with weapons.

Such displays cause real anguish. But what would banning them accomplish? Many extremists would be undeterred; battling the police and getting arrested would give them the heroic aura they want and might even help their recruiting. Instead, the government should focus on doing a better job to protect public safety.

One could even argue that allowing the haters to gather does serve some positive purpose. It may keep the public from getting too complacent about bigotry, while also exposing the bigots as a pathetic fringe outnumbered by counter-demonstrators.

On the other hand, counter-protests that rely on physical interference with offensive expression — from blocking access to actual violence — can quickly lose the moral high ground. In Charlottesville, anti-fascist activists assaulted journalists and neo-Nazis. Moreover, as liberal commentator Peter Beinart writes in The Atlantic, the “antifa” movement’s self-appointed vigilantes are taking it upon themselves “to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not.” It targets have included not only white supremacists but controversial campus speakers.

Similar slippery-slope questions are raised by private companies denying services to hate groups. After Charlottesville, two website hosting companies booted The Daily Stormer, a leading neo-Nazi site. VDARE, an anti-immigrant website that publishes racist and anti-Semitic materials, was cut off by PayPal, the online payment company, and dropped by a Colorado resort that had planned to host its upcoming conference.

None of these actions impinge on the First Amendment. Indeed, some libertarians point out that constitutional protections which bar the government from suppressing opinions depend on the ability of private actors to ostracize repugnant beliefs. Freedom of association is as important as freedom of speech.

But unless the boundaries of socially unacceptable speech are very narrowly drawn, there are legitimate concerns that the push to deplatform and defund such speech may expand to groups and websites with a wide range of expression some consider hateful. What about criticism of feminism or Islam? What about advocacy of a traditional understanding of marriage? Private action that stifles unpopular views may not run afoul of the First Amendment, but it is bad for the culture of liberty — especially in an age when a few internet giants have vast power to determine which speech gets heard.

We need vigilance against bigotry. We also need to stay vigilant on behalf of free speech, and reclaim it from the bigots who would make it their slogan.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.