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Glassheim: Free speech after Charlottesville

The events at Charlottesville are challenging us to take another look at traditional concepts of freedom of speech.

As we think about what happened, many questions arise, such as:

-Can cities set conditions for free speech rallies, such as where and when they can take place, and whether weapons can be carried?

-Does our constitutional protection allow armed neo-Nazi marchers wearing swastikas and carrying torches to parade past a Jewish synagogue chanting anti-Jewish slogans? Does "speech" include these kinds of symbolic self-expression, which may have more menace than the actual object carried?

-Would 5,000 Black Nationalists be permitted to parade through a white suburban neighborhood carrying AK-15s chanting "Send Whitey to hell"?

-Since most of the first 10 amendments were meant to protect the rights of individuals, does the guarantee of individual freedom of speech extend to mobs of 10,000?

-The original reason to guarantee freedom of speech was to arrive at the best public policy through rational discussion. Have we gone too far in protecting "speech" whose intention is intimidation and provocation rather than rational debate?

For some perspective, look at free speech laws in Europe. Between 1933 and 1945, millions were killed and many cities were destroyed by Nazis who believed white Aryans were a superior race. As a result, European laws are much less tolerant of hate speech.

For example, French law allows for prosecution of "public insults" based on religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Denmark criminalizes "expressing and spreading racial hatred." The United Kingdom outlaws threatening, abusive or insulting words if a person has the intention of stirring up racial hatred. Germany, Poland, Hungary and Austria have also banned hate speech.

Even in America, there is no unlimited right to free speech. Some kinds of speech or expression are recognized as being excluded from constitutional protection. Among these are obscenity; child pornography; some false statements of fact; incitement to imminent lawless action; and speech in prisons, on the airwaves, through the mail or in the military.

In Grand Forks, we had a similar test of free speech rights, but on a much smaller scale. Usama Dakdok, an Egyptian of Christian upbringing, has traveled throughout the United States preaching hate (Islam is a "wicked cult") and fear (Muslims "will kill your children"). He also made the unlikely prediction that Muslims (who are about 1 percent of the American population) would soon impose Sharia law on the U.S.

In response to Dakdok's visit, the Grand Forks Muslim community—in partnership with Christian, Jewish and non-faith groups—chose to avoid hostile confrontation by standing in silent protest in front of the Empire Arts Center.

Several months later, the local Muslim community, in conjunction with several Christian churches, sponsored a large gathering during which a diverse group of Muslims spoke to a receptive non-Muslim audience about how they understood the meaning of their faith.

These two responses to Dakdok were a model of the correct ways to deal with hate speech.

Subsequent to Dakdok's visits, a young white man burned down a Somali coffee shop in Grand Forks. Though there was no proof to link Dakdok to the crime, some believed he planted the seeds that inspired the arson. Yet since he did not urge an illegal act, Americans, unlike Europeans, are loath to penalize hate speech that inspires a crime unless there is a clear linkage between the speech and the violence.

What are some takeaways from Charlottesville and Boston regarding free speech, hate speech and public safety?

-Even in open-carry states, police departments that have reason to expect violence should make carrying weapons illegal as a condition of a permit to parade or speak.

The alternative to orderly free speech is disorderly violence. Police should set conditions on where the free speech can take place, establish parade routes and buffer zones between speakers and counter-protesters. Boston police did a good job of enforcing a blue line between two groups, each of which had free speech rights. Charlottesville police failed miserably to protect both public safety and free speech for either side.

-There is a clear distinction between government abridging free speech rights and private individuals or businesses punishing those who espouse Naziism. Nothing in the Constitution prevents employers from firing Nazi advocates. Nor are internet companies prevented from taking down hate speech. But we must be careful about firing Nazis. Next it could be firing Socialists and after that getting rid of environmentalists.

-While protests from the left against destructive anti-social speech is almost a duty of good citizenship, violence—even when provoked—is not something the general public admires. Counter-protesters should perhaps set up schools that teach the strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi in how to engage with crowds who hate them.

-And, finally, we need more discussion and Supreme Court test cases to give clearer definition to the line between protected speech and provocation to hate, violence and social disintegration.

We must continue to protect political speech whose content is capable of being discussed rationally. Speech that consists of direct or implied threats to life and limb of specific people or groups should be outside the protection of the First Amendment.

Eliot Glassheim is a former state lawmaker from Grand Forks. He writes twice each month for the Herald.

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