Speak, don’t speak

Reflections on the meaning of free speech in the 21st century
A free speech sign on National Park Service land. Photo: John Zipperer

Nat Hentoff is dead. the very broad definition of free speech that he supported might also be dead. The legendary columnist and free speech activist argued for decades for the widest possible coverage of the First Amendment. Nearly a quarter century ago, Hentoff told me about wandering into his living room one night to find his two young sons watching a pornographic movie; he said he turned around and went back to bed. “As disgusting as it is,” he said, hardcore pornography should be legal everywhere in the country, including online, and he wanted the then-new World Wide Web to be a tool for free speech.

Sex has certainly flourished online in the decades since, and so has political speech. But if sex has an obvious existence on the Internet — it is viewed or not, censored by parents and employers or not — political speech has gone in different directions online than many on the left might have predicted. Yes, left-wing writers and polemicists are to be found online, as is the mainstream right; but the extreme right has also used the Internet to spread its messages, recruit members, and intimidate opponents.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long been close to Hentoff in broadly and doggedly defending the First Amendment rights to free speech, even for hate speech. Many people still remember the ACLU in 1978 defending the right of a neo-Nazi group to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, home to many Holocaust survivors. After a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., last month turned deadly, even the ACLU announced that it was amending its guidance about defending such groups, giving themselves an out if the marchers are armed.

As famous as the Skokie case was, the ACLU notes that “Although the ACLU prevailed in its free speech arguments, the neo-Nazi group never marched through Skokie, instead agreeing to stage a rally at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago.”

Last month, San Francisco and Berkeley had to confront some of the same issues when in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, two right-wing protests were planned for the Bay Area. One was to take place on our front lawn, Crissy Field; the other was to be staged a day later in a Berkeley city park. Neither went off as planned.

The Bay Area in general and the Marina in particular girded for perhaps violent confrontations at the rallies. Though San Francisco’s elected officials and many of its residents called for the rally to be denied a permit, the chosen site was not city run land; it is part of the National Park Service, and that organization had some fairly strict guidance to follow to allow
free speech on its property. The day before it was slated to take place, the Crissy Field rally was canceled by its organizer, who then announced instead a press conference to take place in Alamo Square (reportedly without a permit); that, too, was called off after the city — now able to enforce its leaders’ wishes on city property — quickly surrounded the park with fencing.

In Berkeley, the organizer failed to get a city permit, and finally urged people not to show up to her rally. She disclaimed any affiliation with racists.


For some people across the political spectrum, Charlottesville was a wake-up call to the new assertiveness of so-called “white identity” groups. At that rally, the neo-Nazis, klansmen, and other extremists were pretty easy to spot and categorize. They didn’t cover their faces with bedsheets; they wore polo shirts and chinos, and people could readily see they were overwhelmingly white — and sociologists and armchair political scientists will have much to chew over in coming months as they deal with the fact that so many of the Charlottesville extremists were Millennials.

But Joey Gibson, the organizer of the Crissy Field “Patriot Prayer” rally, said he was not a white supremacist — in fact, he said he was Japanese, and only one of the eight planned speakers at the rally is white. African-American rapper Montrell Harris found himself explaining to friends and neighbors his planned performance at the Crissy Field event. “I don’t want my crowd thinking I’m supporting white supremacists,” he told KTVU, but he said he was planning to go ahead with it before the event was canceled.

And that Berkeley almost-event? Described as a “No to Marxism” rally, it was organized by transgender woman Amber Cummings, who also claimed the rally had no connection to right-wingers or racists of any sort. Then again, The Mercury News reports that “Cummings once appeared in a photograph at a rally next to Northern California activist and white supremacist Nathan Damigo, founder of Identity Evropa and a player in recent violent clashes in Berkeley and the more recent incident in Charlottesville.”

There have been charges and counter-charges that events like the Patriot Prayer rally were only organized to draw out a violent response from the extreme left, thereby validating the extreme right’s claims of victimhood and drawing supporters to its cause.

In the end, the Crissy Field and Berkeley rallies both fizzled. There was, thankfully, no violence in San Francisco (some scuffles took place in Berkeley). The businesses in the Marina that had been told to close for the day were allowed to open; public transportation was returned to normal.

But what is the state of free speech? Should hate speech be protected speech?


This isn’t the first collision between free speech and the Bay Area. Though Berkeley is known as the home of the free speech movement, that movement was not really about free speech for all; it was about creating a platform for anti-war speech and other voices from the left.

That is the crux of the problem when it comes to many people on the right and the left discussing free speech: They see it in terms of “free speech for me, but not for thee” — incidentally, also the name of a 1992 book by Nat Hentoff. But for the most part, there isn’t a problem for people when they see others being particularly controversial. They can ignore them or complain about them on Facebook, but they don’t strenuously demand they be silenced. There are people — mostly on the left — who want political comedian Bill Maher fired or at least chastised for some of his comments and stances, but Maher continues to be a very visible public figure.

The problem really is when it comes to speech that people consider to be so far out of bounds that it cannot be permitted. In Germany, former home of the Third Reich, it is illegal to use Nazi symbols. In fact, in two separate incidents this summer, foreign tourists in Germany were arrested for making the Nazi salute. Yet Germany is very much a free, prosperous, and stable democracy (arguably a more stable democracy than the United States).

Free speech in the United States has often fallen short of Nat Hentoff’s desires; there wouldn’t be an ACLU if that were not the case. But there has been no end, and probably will be no end, of arguments about what type of hate speech constitutes the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Lawyers and columnists will continue to make their livings off of such debates long into the future.

If there is one cause for optimism among free speechers, it is that this entire exercise has made thousands — perhaps millions nationally — pay attention to issues of free speech, hate speech, our public square, and the fact that democracy requires people’s active participation.

In the lead-up to the planned Crissy Field rally, Time magazine cited counter-protester expectations of tens of thousands of people showing up. In Boston, where a similar right-wing rally was held about a week after Charlottseville, only about 20 people reportedly attended the rally; anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people marched against them.

That might be the best way to ensure that speech continues to be free, but that it doesn’t go unanswered.



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