on the “many sides” and moral equivalencies of free speech

I’m starting this post wondering if I will finish it, if I actually have something to say that hasn’t already been said. I am unconditionally opposed to the ideologies of the kkk and nazis, and I am as sickened as anyone that such statements even need to be made. I am not only opposed to these ideologies but also reject the notion that it is acceptable for others to hold or express such views in our country. Again, it is disgusting that such an opposition cannot simply be assumed.

Defenses of extremism, aside from those that straightforwardly espouse their views, appear to operate through an invocation of free speech and the moral equivalencies the first amendment appears to endorse. As we all have likely seen, this argument goes something like “Americans can believe anything they want and say anything the want. All views are equal under the law.” Certainly the state’s power to restrict speech is heavily constrained (e.g., inciting a riot, yelling “fire” in a theater, etc.). Every right or power, granted to either the state or its citizens, creates capacities that might have a range of outcomes. The freedom of speech, in theory, allows everyone to be heard and to work together democratically for the betterment of the nation. However, it also can divide and destroy the nation. That was the gamble the authors of the bill of rights were willing to take.

Of course, in practice, speech is almost always constrained. At work, in a church, in a place of business, in another’s home, in a classroom, etc: there are often restrictions on what you can say and when you can say it. There are also softer, implied constraints in many instances: e.g., you might not want to go into a bar full of local fans of a sports team and loudly cheer for their rivals. As everyone knows, you can say things that will get you into all kinds of trouble and no one will care about your right to free speech. They’ll still think you’re a jerk. There are very few places in America where someone can spout kkk/nazi ideology and be well-received. You can find such places is on the internet. It’s the long tail of bigotry.

But the first amendment doesn’t say that Americans should say anything they please. It only indicates that the state cannot pass laws restricting speech. The responsibility for ensuring that speech acts do not harm the republic falls upon the people. Free speech is our right and thus our responsibility. The first amendment doesn’t establish a moral equivalency among the views and words of “many sides” but instead leaves their deliberation in our hands.

It is undeniable that there are Americans who seek to remake our nation as some kind of white supremacist theocracy. There are also many Americans who wish to continue the project of establishing our nation as an evolving, diverse, and tolerant democratic community in which all people are treated equally by the state and with respect by their fellow citizens. That project is not easily achieved. In some absolute theoretical sense it might be impossible, but it stands as a set of values to which we aspire. In that project we might and do sometimes disagree very strongly about how to proceed. In such disagreements, the question that is before us is whether or not we will use our right to speech as a way to resolve our differences or as a mechanism for organizing division and violence. White supremacists have no interest in living equally alongside people who look, think, and act differently from themselves. In my view, they have declared themselves to be opposed to the project on which this nation was founded. While the first amendment may prevent the state from enacting a law to prevent their gatherings and speech, as citizens we have no such proscription. Of course, we are restricted from breaking other laws in our response to their speech (that’s another thing you’d wish didn’t have to be said but does). But there are many things we can do within the law to respond to such activities, to make sure that such speech has no place in our national dialogue. Doing so is not a violation of the right to free speech or the erroneous notion of moral equivalence some think it offers. To the contrary, doing so is carrying out the implied responsibilities of free speech in the first place. The Civil War was not simply about eliminating the institution of slavery but also abolishing the idea that one race was superior to others. The first task was accomplished; the second task is ongoing.