So, I’m writing this on Saturday night, at 12:40 AM and something terrible happened today: A rally turned violent in Charlottesville.
Now, I’m not going to talk about what specifically happened. I’m not going to talk about how the “Unite the Right” rally was a racist, white-supremacist, Nazi event (but it totally was). Today, I want to talk about something I’ve heard misinterpreted a lot in my life, and especially today.
So, let’s talk about the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Most people know this as the “Freedom of Speech” amendment. But it’s more than just that. So let’s break it down, talk about what it really means, and gain a real understanding of what it does – and more importantly, doesn’t – protect.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
Now, let’s skip the first part, because “Freedom of Religion” is another article entirely. Instead, let’s start by focusing on the second part which, contrary to what is proving to be popular belief, does not mean you can say whatever you want. This simply states the government of the United States can not dictate or censor the content of any individuals speech both spoken (freedom of speech) or published (freedom of the press) at its most basic level. This clause essentially protects the public from government sanctioned propaganda (i.e. “The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda”) or State sanctioned news as a method of keeping the public submissive (i.e. “The Korean Central News Agency”) It, however, does not protect the individual from the consequences, repercussions, and ramifications of said speech.
On a deeper level, however, not all speech is protected from Government censorship, of which are obscenity, the advocacy of illegal action, and fighting words. ‘Fighting Words’ is defined by the courts as “Words which would likely make the person whom they are addressed commit an act of violence,” and was determined to not be protected by the first amendment (Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568). But what constitutes violence? Well, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
But all of this not withstanding, the bottom line is that the second clause of the first amendment only protects an individuals expression from being silenced by the state. It does not protect that individual from the consequences and ramifications they may incur as a direct result of another individual’s response to said speech. Should a society or community at large determine speech to be reprehensible and hateful, they are in their right to exert the expression of outrage and displeasure toward the hateful individual, within the law, of course. (If you punch a racist for using the n-word, you’re not infringing their free speech, but you are committing assault and battery.)
The second important part of this amendment is the right to peaceable assembly. However, peaceable is the key word. The Government can stop assembly if the assembly threatens the peace.
All this given, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was an egregious example of fighting words and violent assembly. White nationalists were heard chanting “Jews will not replace us”. A group of Ku Klux Klan members was filmed telling a black woman to “Go back to Africa” and using racial slurs.
And worst of all, when counter-protesters took to the streets to peaceably march and voice their distaste at this event, they were intentionally struck by a moving vehicle, killing 1 and injuring 19 others.
Freedom of speech does not mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want and I can’t do anything about it. It means you can say whatever you want and the government can not silence you. I, however, can discredit you and your name publicly for being an asshole, and I can ostracize you from my peaceful community. I’m allowed that right and expression as long as my statements are true and based on fact and reason.
And finally, I’d like to exercise my right to petition for a redress of grievances afforded me by the fourth clause of the first amendment. Because I have some grievances. In America these days, the Government has overtly failed in its duty to protect its citizens and ensure the peace. We had honest to god white nationalists and Nazis walking around promoting violence and fighting words in Charlottesville today, and it’s not the only time. That threatens the peace inherently. And the police, government law enforcement, did nothing to curtail the violent behavior. To any and all members of our Government, I’d like to say this: You have a duty to protect those people that put you in office. And you have thus far shirked that duty; An action that has resulted in the death of one and injury of no less than nineteen Americans today alone.
Therefore, I demand a redress of these grievances.