UC Berkeley, CA: Feb 1, 2017 – Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart editor, alt-right spokesman, deliverer of unabashed hate speech, and known to dox trans and undocumented students at his rallies, was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley. Students gathered by the hundreds–more than 1,500 were there–to protest.
A small group of anarchists, most of whom were not students at Berkeley, became violent during the protests. They used “black bloc” tactics, which drew negative media attention, putting other protestors, especially the marginalized and vulnerable, in danger, and generally participated in undemocratic behavior that changed the tone of the entire protest at the decision of the marginal few.
Middlebury College, VT: Mar 2, 2017 – Charles Murray, author of the racist book The Bell Curve which linked race with intelligence–broadly, scientifically disproven, by the way–spoke at Middlebury College. Hundreds of students, during his speech, stood up, faced away from him and began chanting over him in protest. This effectively shut down his public speech, forcing him to continue by live stream from another location.
As he left the building, some protestors attacked his car, a small handful bringing unnecessary violence to the protests yet again.
These events, among others, have brought to the forefront a conversation about free speech that has frankly baffled and distressed me–especially because the misguided and harmful arguments are coming from the middle left as much as from the right.
I want to talk a little about what freedom of speech means, both constitutionally and in a moral sense, and why we must be cautious in how we define it–as well as my issue with the violence at the protests in the examples above.
What is free speech constitutionally, legally speaking?
Guaranteed by the US constitution, freedom of speech is a right to hold and share opinions, with a few exceptions, without government intervention. More than anything, this is meant to guarantee the right to dissent. There are exceptions to this, most notably the “you can’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater” exception, which was an argument used to uphold the Espionage Act of 1917 and to smother opposition to the draft. “Obscenity” is another, lesser-known exception, as are “fighting words” and certain types of false information (particularly libel/slander), among other things.
A person’s legal right to freedom of speech, in the United States, does NOT guarantee a platform. This means that a university does not have to provide a stage, microphone, seating and other arrangements to allow just anyone to spread their harmful ideas. It means only that the government may not intervene to silence anyone, with a few noted exceptions.
The US constitution also does not guarantee the right to speech that is meant to incite harm or hatred. We do not, in the US, have specific laws against “hate speech” as several countries in Europe do, however, if speech can be proven to be meant to incite harm, fighting, or hatred it is not protected.
The first amendment also guarantees the right to peaceably assemble, which both groups of protestors in the examples above did–the later, smaller fractions’ violence notwithstanding.
What this means is that the free speech being exercised at both schools was the right of the students to protest the hate speech of the speakers. Neither Yiannopolous nor Murray’s right to be hosted by the university was covered by the US constitution.
What does free speech mean objectively?
Now, law is not the final answer to a moral, human right. Law is inherently fallible and must constantly change–in fact, it’s worth noting that the right to freedom of speech is an amendment to our constitution; it was not included in the original draft. Often, basic human rights are an afterthought and must be fought for. Black folks didn’t have a legal right to human autonomy until 1863, or a guaranteed right to vote until 1965. We must not lean upon law for our definition of what is a true human right.
So what does freedom of speech mean? Does it mean that every person has a right to be heard; to spread any ideas they want to, dangerous or not? Should Hitler have been given a platform to spread his message of hate that saw 11 million people murdered?
Surprisingly, lately, we’ve seen a number of even well-respected liberal thinkers and influencers sign on to the idea that yes, even those who would spread hate speech have a fundamental right to be heard in this way.
I don’t believe that. I believe that at the end of the day, all people have a right to think what they like, and should be able to speak their opinions without government interference. I absolutely do not believe it should be up to the state to determine what is allowed or not allowed to be spoken–for the particular reason that even policies that sound good to start with, such as laws against hate speech, are almost always used against the people in the long run. A great example? France’s hate speech laws are being used to try to pass legislation banning the hijab. The state cannot be trusted to protect us, and furthermore, if we give them an inch, they will inevitably take a mile.
I do believe, however, that we must absolutely exercise our right to protest racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ, ableist, xenophobic and other harmful ideologies. I believe that when possible, a civil debate in which we win people over to our ideas–not those we’re debating as much as those listening who may be in the middle–is the most effective way to change minds and counter bad ideas. But I also believe that when we’re dealing with the likes of Yiannopolous and Murray, we’re not engaging in civil debate. We’re countering not just bad ideas, but people whose intention is to spread harm and hate. The most effective way to shut those people down? Protest.
What’s wrong with violence and black bloc tactics?
My issue with violence and black bloc tactics is not a moral one. There have been times and places throughout history where this type of tactic has been absolutely necessary, including the circumstances in which the black bloc was initially formed. I also believe that the type of violence that involves wearing all black and smashing windows is not at all on the same level as person-on-person violence à la “punching Nazis.” Which, even still, is not comparable to the enormous violence of the state which they are protesting.
I refuse to hold the violence of the oppressed to the same standards as the violence of the oppressors. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself–remember, one of the foremost outspoken proponents of nonviolence in modern history–said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I do not hold the liberal idea that violence itself, in any form, is morally wrong, especially because I believe this mentality refuses to consider the material circumstances at hand in a given situation.
This does not mean black bloc is the most democratic, effective or responsible tactic.
Why is it undemocratic?
For the simple reason that by its very nature, black bloc is a small group of people who latch onto a mass protest and turn the tone of it toward violence without the consent of the masses. By definition, black bloc tactics are undemocratic. I have a problem with this. It cannot be a bottom-up, mass movement if it is being controlled by a small group of people without any kind of input or consent from the larger group.
Why is it ineffective?
Under current circumstances, though occasionally black bloc tactics will be what gains a short-term victory, such as shutting down Yiannopolous’ speech at Berkeley, it is more often than not destructive to a movement in the long term. By (again, undemocratically) changing the tone of a protest toward violence, black bloc tactics only give the police, the media, and the more general, moderate population an excuse to look negatively upon whatever message the protest was meant to send. Often these tactics encourage police–already horrifically violent in response to protests–to become militaristic with crowds, using any excuse to crush a movement. This also, of course, draws extra harm to the most marginalized and vulnerable in a crowd, particularly people of color, women, children, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ folks, the poor, and those with disabilities.
Freedom of speech is both a human right and, in the United States, a legal right. But this does not mean–either morally or legally–that every person, regardless of how harmful or dangerous their ideas are, has a right to be given a platform upon which to spread these ideas. It is also a facet of the right to free speech that the masses have every right to rise up and protest what they consider hateful, antisocial ideas.
I believe that the peaceful protests in response to both Yiannopolous and Murray should be defended, at the same time as we do not condone the black bloc tactics employed by small groups at those protests. We should be cautious not to drift into broad moral judgments when we discuss the use of violence in protests, but we should also carefully consider and debate the most effective and democratic tactics to employ in our protests, and I believe that black bloc meets neither requirement at this material point in the fight.
What do you think? Do you have thoughts on free speech? Please share in the comments below! And if you appreciated this post, check out my Patreon! You might also enjoy this article on why you should stop being a Democrat and become a Socialist instead.