Hillsborough upholds free speech as the KKK rallies

As Buddhist philosophers say, No muck, no lotus. The muck has been spread in Hillsborough in recent months by neo-Confederate flag wavers and their compatriots in the Caswell County KKK. Members of both groups have rallied on Hillsborough’s streets to display their antiquated fondness for white supremacy.

One lotus blossom has come in the form of community rejection of the Klan’s message of hate. On Aug. 31, hundreds of people, dwarfing the KKK in numbers and spirit, marched in Hillsborough to oppose white supremacy and speak out for justice and racial equality.

The other blossom, one less appreciated, has been reaffirmation of free speech rights afforded by the First Amendment. To say that this outcome of white supremacist activity is less appreciated is perhaps an understatement. In fact, some of the anti-Klan organizers have gone so far as to ask political officials to “stop the nonsense about free speech” — meaning, don’t protect it — when the speech in question advocates white supremacy.

Understandably, people who feel most threatened by racist speech would like to shut it down. But that’s a dangerous position for a progressive group to take. It’s even more worrisome when elected officials, such as Orange County commissioner Mark Marcoplos, agree that hateful messages on fliers go beyond free speech. That starts to sound like government support for suppressing disfavored speech, not protecting political speech.

Fortunately, Hillsborough mayor Tom Stevens got it right. In an open letter to the Hillsborough community, Stevens said, “We firmly uphold the right to free speech, even for messages that we strongly oppose or find intensely objectionable. Our public sidewalks are a traditional forum where freedom of speech is given great protection. Elected officials can be expected to express particular political views and to articulate community values and aspirations; but when it comes to providing for safety and ensuring free speech rights, the town cannot favor any particular point of view.”

The view Stevens expresses is legally correct. Government must maintain viewpoint neutrality and can restrict “hate speech” only under extremely limited conditions. These conditions, as legal scholar Nadine Strossen summarizes them in a review of relevant law, exist only when speech, taken in context, “directly, demonstrably, and imminently causes certain specific, objectively ascertainable serious harms.”

General avowals of white supremacy, in speech or print, do not meet this . standard, no matter how upsetting such avowals might be. But supporting government neutrality and broad protections for freedom of speech is not just a matter of accepting what’s legally correct. It’s a matter of doing what works best to advance the causes of justice and equality. These causes are never served by empowering government to censor unpopular political views. Opposing entrenched power, sharing and rebutting ideas, and holding politicians accountable require protecting the free speech rights of everyone.

Earlier generations of civil rights, gay rights, peace, and labor activists knew that their ability to condemn injustices and call for change depended on the freedom of speech they exercised under the First Amendment. When their speech rights were infringed, activists sought to reassert and expand them. Asking government to censor others’ speech would have undermined the free speech principles that enabled their own struggles for change. Trying to use the state to restrict others’ speech always backfires; it invites repression when tides turn and other groups gain power. Censorship also tends to strengthen hate groups by instilling feelings of martyrdom. The more effective responses are counter speech,education, and efforts to abolish the inequalities that fuel hate. This is how we can turn the muck into its beautiful opposite.

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina StateUniversity.