The Limits of Free Speech
A year ago, neo-Nazis and white supremacists groups planned a march in Washington DC. I took part with hundreds of others in a protest against those groups. We followed their march, yelled at and taunted the white supremacists who turned out for the event and did as much as we could to disrupt their message and show them that DC didn’t want them there. Twice we blocked their march only to have police on horseback disperse us. As the march continued, more and more police showed up wearing full riot gear.
Not a single protestor out that day considered whether or not this was infringing on the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech or whether we should tolerate their right to speak about white supremacy and fascism. If the police had not been protecting these individuals, I am very sure that many of the protestors would have violently suppressed their ability to spread their messages of hate. But some people in the neighborhoods we marched through felt that we should respect their right to hold their disgusting opinions because they were just opinions. Many people believe that fascists should be allowed to speak and hold rallies because their ideas are completely obsolete and they make a mockery of themselves just through talking about their ideas. This is completely false.
The idea of ‘free speech’ has morphed from a concept prohibiting governments from regulating the press into a philosophical credo applied to everything under the sun. If Reddit users want to have a subreddit posting pictures of underage girls, it’s within their rights because ‘free speech.’ If a celebrity wants to say something racist or sexist, people defend that celebrity’s right to free speech. It’s only an opinion; it’s only words. Freedom of speech has become a defense on any and all criticisms of someone being denounced for saying something awful.
There are a number of reasons that people defend free speech. One of those reasons is that it ensures that everyone has a voice. Minority voices are often shouted down and without free speech, those voices would be silenced violently. We can consider Black, Women and Gay Liberation movements as examples. Without the concept of free speech, these movements would have faced even higher levels of police and state repression just because of the things they advocated for. Additionally, free speech is often defended because even if the most repugnant of speakers has a voice, it ensures that everyone has a voice.
Unfortunately, the reasons to defend speech are often not even taken into consideration in real situations. In the aforementioned Liberation movements, participants were violently assaulted, jailed and repressed specifically for the things they said and advocated for. The police rarely, if at all, came to protect their marches with riot shields and horses. These movements threatened state power and were a threat to the status quo. White supremacists and neo-nazis seek to consolidate state power and are not generally a threat to those who make decisions.
Besides just state repression, Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists words have a legacy of violence and subjugation behind them. Both of these groups used violence in the past (and present) to seize their political aspirations. They have murdered and terrorized people and to allow these groups to speak peacefully is a disgusting slap in the face to those who they seek to subjugate again. And the wish to subjugate again is not only a hope, but a reality that they work towards.
Speech is too often thought of as divorced from action. We have the right to say and believe what we want as long as we don’t act on the things we say. But that line of reasoning fails to take into account speech to incite. Nobody can claim free speech when yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded building. No one can claim free speech when encouraging people to riot. But even going beyond just incitement, speech is concomitant with action. Fascist marches, demonstrations and speeches exist in the same reality as their organizing and building. And building the organization means murder and terrorism.
That is not just hyperbole; the stronger these organizations become the more violent they become. Looking at the fascist-sympathizing, paramilitary organization in Greece, we can see that their political ascension has come after years of organizing and violent attacks on immigrants and leftists. Their speech has followed their terrorism. And even when they achieved some political success, their violence did not stop. A Member of Parliament assaulted a KKE MP on national television and members recently murdered Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek rapper also known as Killah-P.
Even moving away from the realm of intentional political violence, we can see that violence and speech are not separate. The use of racial, homophobic and misogynist slurs exists in a political and societal climate in which violence against these groups is still real and rampant. Although people may use these words among their friends and insist that they mean no harm by them, the reality is that people who assault and marginalize vulnerable groups continue to use these words as a way to demean, dehumanize and degrade. Misogynistic slurs may be funny to some, but we still live in a world in which sexual assault, rape and violence against women are still disturbingly common. The derogatory meaning of the N-word may seem like a product of bygone eras, but we still live in a society in which black neighborhoods are militarized and black bodies are shipped off to prisons at alarming rates and where black unemployment continues to dwarf white unemployment
Criticizing people for voicing marginalizing opinions is not being “politically correct.” Attacking white supremacists for their views is not violating their free speech. It’s a resisting violence against marginalized people. When politicians or campaigners call for restrictions on women’s bodies or increasing funding for wars or police departments, they are directly advocating for violence against people. This is speech cannot be separated from action and only action can stop its consequences.