The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution means nothing if its highest ideals are not staunchly protected during times of unrest. It means nothing if we reconsider – or undermine – the principles embedded in those words when public hate is on the rise and the purveyors of that hatred turn it into a weapon.
The First Amendment wasn’t crafted to be used only by those we deem good and righteous or in times of unity and prosperity. It was written because the Founders knew strife was going to be a feature of our form of democracy, and the most tempting way to re-establish calm and comfort would be to silence those we think ugly and unworthy of the unalienable rights bestowed upon us.
White supremacists and nationalists deserve First Amendment protections, too. Just as we thought it ill-advised when the Trump administration coyly floated the idea of gutting the First Amendment because the president didn’t like news coverage, we think it is equally inadvisable to even toy with the notion of rolling back free speech protections, a notion that has at least some support in the ACLU and progressive communities in the wake of Charlottesville. As vile as they are – racial epithets and “Jews will not replace us” were among the many things they said – there should be no white supremacist exception to the First Amendment.
That’s why we found it questionable last week when the ACLU announced it wouldn’t defend the free speech rights of white supremacists who legally carried weapons at rallies.
At issue, however, is more than the letter of the First Amendment, which is focused on the legal limits the government faces regarding speech. We are talking about its spirit, which is designed to foment a robust exchange of ideas to strengthen this country. That means even private institutions and organizations should consider the ramifications before firing employees because of unpopular speech, and it means those involved in the Antifa movement, which is purportedly a vanguard against the rise of white supremacy, must honor it as well. Violence and threats of violence should be neither encouraged nor tolerated.
The North Carolina House also failed to honor the spirit of the First Amendment this year when it passed a bill that would offer some protections to drivers who run over protesters. Fortunately, the bill was shuttled off to a Senate committee, where it will likely remain in the wake of Charlottesville. But the bill’s co-sponsors, Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis, continued to defend it last week.
“It is intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend,” they said in a statement to The Intercept.
Actually, it’s intellectually dishonest to claim the spirit of that bill – and others proposed in about a half-dozen states in response to Black Lives Matter and Native American protests – did not send a chilling message about what kind of speech was acceptable. It was as ill-advised as talk about preventing white supremacists from protesting in the public square.
This is not easy. But the First Amendment has served us well. We should do nothing to dilute its power.