Free Speech or Die?
The paradox of self-victimization by the alt-right
In May 2017, a white nationalist decided to harass a teenage Muslim girl for wearing a hijab on a train in Portland, Oregon. His name was Jeremy Christian, and on social media he wrote about his desire to join “Donald Trump’s SS”. When three men—one of them an Army veteran—confronted Christian about his abuse, he pulled out a knife and slashed all three men in the throat, killing two of them. During his arraignment, he yelled out, “Free speech or die! Get out if you don’t like free speech! You call it terrorism! I call it patriotism!” Christian had decided that if people would not allow him to be a hateful bigot to a Muslim teenage girl, then he had the right to murder them in the name of free speech.
In addition to praising Donald Trump, whom he adores, as the next Hitler on Facebook, Christian also often used social media to espouse anti-Muslim beliefs and to call terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a true patriot. In March 2017, at an event in Portland called March for Free Speech that was organized by alt-right and conservative types, Christian showed up with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders like a cape, casting Nazi salutes while yelling, “Die, Muslims!”
Jeremy Christian was not the only white nationalist in 2017 who turned to violence in the name of free speech. In October 2017, hours after a speech at the University of Florida by white supremacist and self-proclaimed free speech advocate Richard Spencer, three men—Tyler Tenbrink and brothers William and Colton Fears—cast Nazi salutes, shouted “Heil Hitler,” and fired a gun at people protesting Spencer’s appearance. All three men were also present at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that was in part organized by Spencer. It is worth noting that Spencer is credited with coining the term “alt-right” as an umbrella for all of the political ideologies that support white supremacy. He is also famous for shouting “Hail Trump” during a speech as Nazis gave him the Nazi salute.
In July 2017, Lane Davis, a 33-year-old Donald Trump supporter who was living with his parents, murdered his father in cold blood with a chef’s knife after his father questioned his belief in the right-wing conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate.” Davis worked as an intern for Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart writer who, before being outed as a fan of pedophilia, was championed as the poster boy for the far-right’s free speech movement. Yiannopoulos, an ardent Trump supporter, famously tried and failed to stage a “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley in September 2017. It is not a coincidence that his intern murdered in the name of free speech. These white nationalist killers are murdering for political reasons, and they are being radicalized by right-wing leaders like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and, ultimately, Donald Trump.
Recognized by the United Nations as an inherent human right, freedom of speech is widely considered to be a cornerstone of civilization. According to Westernized history, the principle of free speech was introduced to the world as a political ideal when the Greeks invented democracy. There were great debates about freedom of speech during the Enlightenment and great battles waged over it during the French Revolution. As defined, free speech is the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint. Absolute freedom of speech, on its face, certainly seems like a beautiful and noble principle, one worth fighting and dying for if need be. The recent debates, rallies, and fights surrounding free speech show us that while we all seem to agree that free speech is a great thing, we can also violently disagree about how and when free speech is being threatened, and why.
When the bar for your behavior has been lowered to “it’s allowed,” and that becomes your sole defense for doing something rude or despicable, you’ve lost all moral high ground.
Jeremy Christian used his free speech to hurl abuse at a teenage girl for wearing a hijab. This is terrible behavior, but it is allowed by law. Using free speech to confront Christian in that situation is also allowed by law, and that action should be encouraged and applauded by decent people. Christian decided that free speech applied only to him and that anyone who uses free speech to question his behavior deserves death. Obviously, he is an extremist, and what he did would be the opposite of what the principles of free speech represent. The problem is that many on the far right, the side adjacent to white nationalist and Nazi types like Christian, use the principle of free speech as an excuse to say whatever they want without consequence. Like Christian, they think free speech applies only to what they want to say and hear.
My focus is on the right wing because there is no “free speech” movement being supported and pushed by the left wing. Many of today’s free speech advocates call themselves progressives, even though their talking points often align with the white-supremacist ideals pushed by many supporters of the GOP. The right-wing focus on the oppression of free speech is disingenuous at best and, at worst, insidious. This is an invented oppression. Many of these self-proclaimed free speech advocates are solely advocates for the right to say hateful things unfettered. Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist organizations and sympathizers already have the right to say hateful things, because hate speech, however you define it, is protected by the First Amendment. What today’s right-wing free speech advocates are truly advocating is for Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist organizations and sympathizers to have additional, special rights the rest of us do not have: the right to say whatever they want without dissent, argument, pushback, or consequence.
Speaking or writing words is by definition an action, and every action has a consequence. If I see a guy dressed up like a Nazi, goose-stepping up and down the street, and I run up and punch that Nazi in the face, I will likely be arrested and convicted for assault. In America, it is not illegal to be a Nazi. It is, however, illegal to punch somebody for being a Nazi. That means freedom of speech is pretty well protected in this country. The consequence of me punching a Nazi is that I become a criminal, and the police have a duty to find and arrest me. The consequence of being a Nazi is that somebody may want to punch you in the face enough to take that chance.
My philosophy on seeing someone who is a Nazi or at least sympathetic to Nazis getting punched in the face is anti-violence but pro-karma. I don’t believe violence solves a problem—violence only begets violence. I do believe in self-defense, so while I will fight to protect myself and others from the threat of violence, I will not throw the first blow. I also understand how karma works, and I don’t cry for those who receive it. So while you will never see me put a mask on and punch a Nazi just for speaking words, I will laugh when I see an anti-fascist do it in a video. I don’t cry for Nazis, nor would I protest if a someone who punched a person just for speaking words gets arrested for doing so.
Many privileged types who are under no threat from racist or fascist ideologies have chosen to paint the antifa movement as the ultimate fascists, violent bogeymen who are “the real Nazis” for refusing to let fascism have a platform through any means necessary. Antifa, a loose-knit network of anti-fascist groups from many different places on the political spectrum, take the Jewish anti-Holocaust phrase “never again” very literally. They have vowed to never again let fascists have a platform, and although they are largely peaceful, sometimes people who identify as antifa are willing to break laws to carry out their mission, whether through civil disobedience, violence, or property damage. The right wing has decided that this aggressive pushback against racism and fascism is a bigger threat to society than actual racism or fascism. The right wing often values property and the illusion of law and order over actual justice and actual lives.
What the right-wing defenders of freedom of speech fail to acknowledge is how the rhetoric of racist or fascist propaganda leads to violence, whether psychological or physical. Even if we put aside the glaring examples of violent right-wing extremists like Jeremy Christian and Lane Davis, giving a white supremacist like Bell Curve author Charles Murray a platform to say that black people have, on average, naturally low IQs empowers supporters of eugenics, a widely debunked pseudoscience that Nazis used to justify genocide. Those who believe in ethno-states and are anti-diversity are, frankly, anti-human. The sole way to achieve that goal is through violence and extermination of others. It doesn’t matter if the speaker who supports ethno-states and hates diversity is polite. It doesn’t matter how nicely someone dresses when they claim that diversity is the cause of some imagined white genocide. These are Nazi ideals, and we have already seen what happens when Nazi ideals are normalized and given a platform. Hating a person for how they were born is illogical and hateful, and hate does not always deserve a debate.
Historically, liberals, not conservatives, have pushed the cause of freedom of speech. During the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, left-wing liberals rallied around advocates for free speech, like comedian/satirist Lenny Bruce and activist Abbie Hoffman. When I was a teenager during the late 1990s, a fight for freedom of speech in the music industry was reaching its boiling point. Starting in 1985, when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, found her daughter listening to the sexually explicit song “Darling Nikki” by Prince and began a crusade to rid the music industry of all explicit content, the movement for censorship of musicians dominated the industry by 1990. That was the year when the rap group 2 Live Crew, from Miami, Florida, became the first musicians to have a parental advisory sticker placed on their album.
By 1992, Ice-T, who today is almost as famous for playing police officers on film and TV as he is for being a forefather of gangsta rap, was facing the biggest challenge of his career. A song called “Cop Killer,” which Ice-T wrote and performed on an album from his rock band Body Count, caught the attention of Tipper Gore and Vice President Dan Quayle. Warner Brothers, the company that released the song, was being pressured to recall the album and disavow Ice-T. Along with the band, the record company’s executives were receiving death threats from police sympathizers, and police were refusing to provide protection for people at Ice-T’s concerts. A police department in Greensboro, North Carolina, publicly stated that they would refuse to respond to calls made from a Greensboro record shop that was selling the Body Count album.
I was 17 years old in 1992. As a teenager, your heroes seem larger than life. They find success in a world that you are not yet a part of but yearn to be. I was in love with hip-hop, and Ice-T was one of its brightest stars and one of my favorite rappers. The push to censor Ice-T’s music made him our anti-hero, a black knight willing to face down the establishment to provide a voice for the voiceless. By naming his 1989 album The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!, Ice-T seemed to predict the trials he would face in 1992. To the teenage me, he seemed like a prophet, and I was excited to be his fan because of it. As much as one could within the business, Ice-T martyred himself for the culture in the name of freedom of speech. Today’s self-proclaimed right-wing martyrs for freedom of speech are not gangsta rappers. They are political talking heads who align themselves with white supremacist rhetoric.
In 1992, police were publicly stating they would shirk their duties to protect Ice-T and those who support him. Ice-T has always been an American citizen with the right to free speech, but police were publicly stating they were willing to disobey the law because they did not like what he had to say about them. By 2016, police were going out of their way to protect white nationalists and neo-Nazis from prosecution, just like they had done for the KKK for many years. After a June 2016 KKK rally in Sacramento, California, ended in violence, police were caught on tape working with Nazi groups to identify anti-fascist activists they wanted to arrest. In 2017, after the tragic events that occurred at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, police showed little to no interest in finding the white supremacists who beat up DeAndre Harris and killed Heather Heyer. If not for the diligent efforts of journalist and anti-racism activist Shaun King, these perpetrators would have never been found.
It is not a coincidence that freedom of speech for white supremacists who already enjoy it under the full protection of the law has become a cause célèbre in the Trump era.
Donald Trump, whose father was once arrested at a KKK rally, has expressed his belief in Nazi-adjacent eugenics many times. Being a free speech absolutist in this era is a white privilege pushed by those who believe, like Trump, that there are “very fine people” who march with KKK and Nazis. Claiming to be oppressed by opponents of freedom of speech allows these white supremacists to claim they are just as oppressed as the people they oppress. They are jealous of the strength shown by the oppressed; it looks fun and sexy from where they sit.
This battle for freedom of speech is being played out mostly on college campuses. Recently, left-leaning students have, at times successfully, pressured private and public universities to disinvite right-wing speakers who they feel spread messages of hate. This is where the free speech conversation gets murky. While the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government, it does protect the rights of students and public universities who invite speakers who may deliver hateful or divisive messages, as well as the rights of the speakers themselves. Part of the problem is that these battles are often waged after a very small contingent has invited a speaker rather than allowing the full student body to democratically weigh in on whether a speaker should be invited.
Campuses of government-funded public universities are indeed public spaces, but not in the same way as public parks or street corners, and there can exist context that limits absolute freedom of speech when dealing with them. Colleges are institutions of higher learning, not town squares, and the faculty has a responsibility to provide the students with the best education possible. Campuses have always been a stew of ideas, a soupy mess, as they should be. The business of evolving into a more compassionate versions of ourselves is going to have many bumps along the road. From microaggressions to the #MeToo movement, our society is experiencing growing pains, and that’s good. For far too long, those who benefit the most from systems of patriarchy and white supremacy have dictated for oppressed people what they may be offended by.
Youth have always been ahead of the curve on issues of principle and oppression. From the French Revolution to the anti-war protests of the 1960s, history has taught us that college students who oppose the right-wing politics that often lead to rises in fascism have traditionally been on the right side of history. The people most offended by the use, or at times overuse, of phrases like microagressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces are often straight white males who never experience the kind of oppression and degradation of being that would lead to people to explore new ways of dealing with it. Telling someone how to deal with something you are not the target of is a glaring example of abusing your privilege.
As a show-business performer, I understand and relate to critiques that comedians like Chris Rock have made about the difficulties of performing for college students who’ve been made overly sensitive by a politically correct culture. However, I also do not hold comedians to the same rigorous standards of message and conduct as I would journalists, politicians, or scientists. If college students, while trying to be inclusive, compassionate, and less bigoted, getting it wrong every once and a while is enough of a problem for you to write a think piece about it, you’re exhibiting an incredible amount of privilege. College is not meant to be show business; it is meant to be an incubator for ideas.
Safe spaces are often necessary for victims of abuse, and just like anything designed to protect victims, the concept of safe spaces can be abused as well. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the concept or make fun of people who may actually need them. Apologists for fascists point to the liberal ACLU stance on absolute freedom of speech, no matter the consequence. I believe the ACLU is correct in principle but not in practice. The real-world application of principal does not always yield the correct results, because when it comes to oppression, intention doesn’t matter—results do. It’s strictly white privilege to say that what Nazis and the KKK say is not violent just because they say it politely while dressed in khakis. Nazis and the KKK hide behind freedom of speech to advocate for the removal and extermination of people of color and anyone else they do not like.
Freedom of speech by itself is not the foundation of anti-fascism; anti-fascism is the foundation of anti-fascism. If you are using your freedom of speech to support, defend, and apologize fascists, rather than use it to actively resist fascists, you are helping fascism. Fascism is anti-human, and fascists, like those who support pedophilia, should always face consequences. Milo Yiannopoulos was given many platforms until he expressed support for pedophilia, because every one of us has been a child. Not every one of us feels threatened by fascism, and we all should. As a man who places morality above the legal system, I cannot hide behind the First Amendment for my argument. People of color have always had our freedom of speech suppressed in America; this is not new to us. We haven’t been able to depend on the government to protect our freedoms, and we have had to protect ourselves from the government itself. Slavery legally coexisted with the First Amendment for more than 100 years. Cry me a river.
The heads of the alt-right movement, which rose to power courtesy of the Trump administration and is more than comfortable aligning with white supremacist ideas, have successfully weaponized the concept of free speech against those who also use free speech to tell them that their ideas are shit.
Self-proclaimed free speech martyrs like Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer openly state that they want to destroy liberalism, globalism, and the idea that diversity is a good thing. When people hate diversity, Nazis are born. When people see those who oppose them as less than human, they have no problem taking a human life to make a point. It not a coincidence that hate crimes against Muslims and Jews have risen dramatically since Trump took office.
White supremacists who harass anti-racist and anti-fascist activists online behind anonymous accounts are followers of a wide array of these “free speech” advocates. The use their precious anonymity and claims of having their free speech oppressed to write terribly bigoted things and to support terribly bigoted ideas. They often confuse social media with an open marketplace of ideas, as if social media were the internet itself. They don’t seem to understand that they agreed to terms of service before signing on to sites like Twitter and Facebook, and that these terms of service say they can be suspended for many different forms of bigotry or harassment. Social media networks are private companies that make you obey the rules of the house and reserve the right to kick you out when you break those rules. Your Twitter account does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Remember, conservatives, corporations are people too.
Freedom of speech in America simply means the government cannot arrest you for what you say. This I agree with. This doesn’t mean I must tolerate or listen to what you have to say, and it doesn’t mean that your misinformed opinions must be treated as fact or with respect, either in the flesh or on social media. The First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or protest of your ideas. If what you choose to say or write gets you banned from a community, yelled at, fired from your job, or called mean names, your right to free speech is not being violated. You are just receiving the karmic consequences of using your free speech to advocate for hate. There are places in the world where free speech is truly being suppressed. Your Twitter account is not one of them. Your college campus is not one of them. Use your free speech to show solidarity with those who are actually being oppressed instead.