When does freedom of speech cross the line?

August 31, 2017 — by Katherine Zhou

In the wake of the violence at Charlottesville, is freedom of speech really beneficial to America? 

Ask almost any American and they’ll proudly recite that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Of all of the first-world countries on the globe, Americans protect their First Amendment rights — most notably freedom of speech — most dearly. Even the often ignorant contestants on Jimmy Kimmel’s street interview segments know that.

But when, if ever, is it OK to censor freedom of speech in such a proud democratic country?

This question was recently brought to light after a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., from Aug. 11–12 erupted in violence. Right-wing groups were there to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in the city’s Emancipation Park, but it was clear that the crowd of white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and various militias were also pushing a white supremacy agenda.

But unlike other groups that held homophobic and hateful protests, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the “Unite the Right” rally was notable because of violence it incited and the extremity of the hate speech. Along with chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, the protesters proudly wore swastikas; they waved Confederate battle flags, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic banners and  (not shockingly) Trump/Pence signs. To add fuel to the fire, some right-wing protesters carried semi-automatic weapons into the protest. These protesters could’ve easily fired on the crowd, but didn’t. One alt-right protester did, of course, kill one person and injure 19 by driving through the counter-protest.

These Neo-Nazis deserve freedom of speech, yes, but not the freedom to speak unconditionally. There is a very clear distinction between speaking freely and espousing hatred.

Hate speech is not simply having one position on abortion, for example, but rather being blatantly, flagrantly racist — being an actual Nazi who advocates for ethnic cleansing and violence against those who oppose your opinion. People who are hateful, in essence, pose a threat to domestic tranquility. The rhetoric that this protest is propagating has already led to violence and hateful action. We cannot protect freedom of speech if it directly harms human life.

And there’s ample legal precedent for limitations: Although hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, speech likely to incite violence, lawless action or danger to the nation's security is not protected. The hate speech from the last “Unite the Right” rally has already resulted violence. And a Nazi uprising, however far-fetched its rhetoric might seem, poses a direct threat to the security of American lives. It is also worth noting that the violence from the other side, such as Antifa, while largely instigated by the right-wing protesters is also condemnable, such as in the Aug. 27 Berkeley protest.

Many oppose stopping these hateful protests and opposing hateful rhetoric in general because it will be hard to distinguish what can be classified as “hate.” However, I believe there are standards for what can be considered hateful. In this country, we have laws against hate crimes, so there are legal precedents for what can be considered hate. In other countries, such as Germany, there are already limitations on freedom of speech, such as preventing Holocaust denial.

America arrived late to the game in stopping Nazis before. We don’t want history to repeat itself, even on a smaller scale, so we cannot take this kind of speech lightly. Anyone with the power to stop these so-called “protests” needs to stop future protests. The government needs to consider becoming much stricter on stopping violent hate speech before it gets any worse.

Until then, we can only hope for peace.