Daniels: Putting speech and violence into perspective

September 15, 2017

Young, bright, inquisitive youth are returning to college campuses all over the country.

I recall fondly the all-too-brief four years of my college education, which afforded me the opportunity to exit my family cocoon and be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and opinions. With encouragement from my professors to consider the potential merits of opposing viewpoints, while countering those I disagreed with through my own speech, I began to formulate a process for developing opinions based on reasoned beliefs that were truly my own.

Sadly, too few students today benefit from the same opportunities. At many universities, the environment seems calculated to encourage group-think and to “protect” students from opinions that differ from their own. Students actually demand (and administrators grant) “safe spaces” where they can be “protected” from ideas they don’t like.

Worse yet, the intolerance of diverse views often leads to threats of—and actual—violence against messengers for those views. The most ironic instance of this occurred last spring at the University of California at Berkeley—the legendary cradle of the “free speech movement” of the 1960s.

In 1965, the indignation of students, watching fellow students arrested for peacefully expressing themselves through distributing fliers, led to a national movement in defense of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

As the Berkeley chancellor said in that era, “The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.”

Fifty years later, the free speech movement has been turned on its head, in its very birthplace.

Last spring, Ann Coulter, a highly conservative author and speaker, saw her planned speech on the Berkeley campus canceled by campus administrators who said they could not protect her from violence if she spoke.

Coulter, while articulate, often expresses opinions others find offensive. However, that is no reason to suppress her right to speak—much less to threaten violence to prevent her speech.

Complicating matters is the tragedy of Charlottes-ville, West Virginia. How should that impact our thinking? I believe that everyone—except the misguided members of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan—agrees that their views are antithetical to everything our country stands for. It is not an exaggeration to say their view of the world is vile and evil; there should be no sympathy in our society for hatred against others based on their race, their ethnicity or their gender identity.

However, our country was founded on the right of people—even purveyors of hateful thoughts—to express themselves peacefully. So it was appropriate to permit them to march in Charlottesville. However, it appears they came prepared for, and even seeking, a violent encounter, as apparently did some—but not all—counter-protestors.

This is where I think the line should be drawn. Violence is not speech. Inciting others to violence is not protected by the First Amendment. Speech, unaccompanied by violence, in favor of hateful ideas does not constitute violence. Violent reaction to those who peacefully advocate ideas most of us revile has no place in civil society. We must protect peaceful speech, at all costs; it is the bedrock of our democracy.

The group advocating violent suppression of others’ speech, in particular on college campuses, calls itself “antifa”—for “anti-fascist.” These people believe it is their right to prevent what they believe to be “fascist” speech, through violent means.

In other words, they’re willing to prevent the expression of ideas with which they disagree, by resorting to violence.

Isn’t that reminiscent of the Third Reich?•

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Daniels, managing partner of Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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