A new battle line is being drawn in the free speech debate. Some on the left are redefining hate speech, in particular, as a form of violence, creating a rationale for using violence to shut it down.
The frightening consequences of this shift were seen recently in Berkeley, California, where thousands of people gathered to protest racism. They were mostly peaceful. The exception was a group of 100 or more so-called antifa, short for anti-fascists. They signaled their nefarious intentions by dressing in black, wearing masks and carrying shields and pepper spray. And they attacked a small group of right-wing supporters of President Donald Trump assembled in a city park.
We’ve seen violent black-clad protesters at events worldwide, but these agitators have become more active in the United States since Trump’s election. They turned a peaceful protest in Portland, Oregon, into a scene of violent chaos, rampaged in Washington on the day Trump was inaugurated, and forced the cancellation of a planned speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February by infiltrating about 1,500 peaceful protesters and breaking windows, setting fires and hurling rocks at police — on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, the birthplace of the modern free speech movement. It was a disgusting display.
Such incidents preceded the deadly clash between the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the counterprotesters who decried their odious words, and allowed Trump to try to establish a false moral equivalence between the two.
A similarly troubling development is evolving on campuses. Many liberal students demand protection from speech with which they disagree, calling for “safe spaces” and chanting “shut it down.” Those with canceled appearances include conservative commentator Ann Coulter, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and political scientist Charles Murray, who has argued that genetic differences in intelligence exist between races. Some 150 students shouted down Murray’s speech at Vermont’s Middlebury College in March, and masked protesters who might not have been students pushed and shoved Murray and his left-leaning faculty interviewer, who was injured in the confrontation. Dozens of students were rightly disciplined for their roles in the fiasco.
Navigating the free-speech marketplace is not easy. Some ideas are revolting by any reasonable standard. But strength lies in understanding that good ideas will prevail in open debate, and that you cede the moral high ground when you use violence to stake your claim there. Liberals must condemn their philosophical allies who use violence to deny someone else’s free speech, even if those words are vile, just as conservatives must condemn violence employed by some on the extreme right.
White supremacist groups are planning rallies this fall. Opponents will counterprotest. College students are returning to campuses. Yiannopoulos and Coulter have been invited to speak later this month at Berkeley. It’s important we get this balance right.
Hate speech is deplorable. But the only thing that should be shut down are the groups that use violence to stop it.