In the wake of the the crap that went down in Charlottesville over the weekend, my brother shared a post that went as follows:
“If Germany has outlawed the swastika for it being a symbol of hate and murder, why have KKK symbols not been outlawed for being an instigating symbol of murder.”
This was actually similar in vein to a tweet by comedian Chelsea Handler. For context, on August 6, 2017, two Chinese tourists were arrested in Germany for making the Nazi salute. Handler’s response was as follows:
“2 Chinese guys were arrested in Berlin for making nazi salutes. Wouldn’t it be nice 2 have laws here for people who think racism is funny?”
The answer to both posts is simple: Unlike Germany, America actually protects freedom of speech.
Freedom of Speech is not there to protect speech we like; quite the opposite. It is there to protect dissenting views, even vile views like those of Nazis and the KKK, from being quashed, silenced, or relegated to the shadows. If someone openly presents a view you don’t agree with, the correct response is not to silence them but rather to use your own freedom of speech to argue against them, to show the world how screwed up their ideas are. Silencing them would give the appearance that we are afraid of those views, that we are afraid to confront them openly in the light of day.
Now, the post shared by my brother was a a bit more specific than Handler’s tweet. Instead of banning something simply because “racism”, the post puts forward that the symbols somehow instigate murder. The attempt here is to equate those symbols with the very narrow caveat that inciting violence is not free speech.
However, that caveat is intentionally narrow. In the landmark decision Brandenburg v. Ohio, the The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” The keywords there are “directed” and “imminent.” It only covers speech that directly and specifically calls for lawless action (like violence), such as a group leader telling their followers to “Go punch those people!” And even then, the sentence itself is not banned, but the sentiment behind it, because of context and intent. It has to be used in the specific context of call to imminent lawless action (What other context might there be? The sentence spoken sarcastically. An actor saying the sentence in a movie. A stand-up comedian using it in a joke. The possibilities are endless).
A symbol might represent violent ideologies, but a symbol cannot directly incite imminent violence. A symbol has no agency. A symbol simply put on display does not directly call anyone to violent action. Only people can do that. By equating the symbol with incitement of violence, you are removing the agency of the people calling for and committing violence. Symbols, words, and sentences do not incite violence; people do.
Finally, letting people freely display their hateful paraphernalia allows the world to know exactly where they stand. Remember how I mentioned views being relegated to the shadows? That’s what happens when you limit speech. People with “illegal” ideas will be forced to group in secret, to continue on in their ignorance, building deeper societal roots for their hate. If they are able to ‘proudly’ display their affiliations, we know where they are. The FBI knows where they are. And we can appropriately fight back against their ideas.
Disclaimer: I hate that I have to add this, but some might think (despite my repeatedly calling the ideas surrounding these symbols ‘hateful’ or ‘vile’) that my support of the freedom of speech implies my support of the ideas being spoken. So here is what I think: The Nazis were evil; neo-Nazis are also evil. The KKK is evil. White Supremacy is evil. Racism in any form is evil. What happened in Charlottesville was disgusting.