Charlottesville, Boston, Berkeley and the Desecration of the First Amendment

August 19, 2017
Speaking my mind today may be impolitic. However, because what I fear most is the silence following the premature death of the First Amendment, speak I must.

I am reminded of Paul’s recital of his unblemished pedigree: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3: 5-6). I cannot claim so perfect a lineage. Mine is cobbled together, a denial of my birthright, a patchwork of personal choices in the quest to believe and do the right things.

My history of voting in Presidential elections has been a forty-year effort to redeem myself for choosing Nixon in 1972 when I was among the batch of 18- to 20-year-olds newly enfranchised by the 26th Amendment. In 1976, I cast a meaningless write-in vote for Eugene McCarthy becaue I couldn’t bring myself to vote for a Southern Baptist. Since then, my record as a left-leaning Democratic voter has been spotless (except for 2012, when I didn’t vote at all because of my distaste for some of my bedfellows). I worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 and have an “I’m with Her” sticker and a “Woman Card” discreetly placed in an office drawer just for reassurance. I came to North Carolina to study the history of race relations in the South but found that even in Chapel Hill, that bastion of Southern liberalism, the radical perspective I learned at the feet of my mentor was unwelcome. I read my Herbert Aptheker and Eugene Genovese. I joined the Episcopal Church because of its position on race and gay rights and abortion. I subscribe to The New Yorker and listen to NPR. When my former husband told me he was going to join the NRA, I said I would join the Community Workers’ Party (he did; I didn’t). Because of the various choices I made, my own father called me a nigger-lover.

With a few notable exceptions, I have been smug in my liberal-Democratic skin. But since the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, a week ago, I find myself lost in a completely unfamiliar political landscape. And I can’t understand how the ground beneath me shifted so suddenly, placing me in unrecognizable territory.

The first I even knew of the “Unite the Right” rally came last Friday at 7:59 p.m. from Facebook friend Laura Inscoe, a recently retired Episcopal priest from Richmond, who wrote, “On my way to Charlottesville to join hundreds of clergy. Wrong is wrong, and cannot stand unopposed.” I hit “like” in solidarity.

In retrospect, though, I believe that similar decisions by other people like my peaceable friend may have been precisely the worst response to the planned rally in Emancipation Park. One of the certainties in the marketplace of ideas–a long-held principle of First Amendment law–is that someone has to show up to listen.  If right-thinking people had stayed home last Saturday, the group of  approximately 500 militant white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville and would have had no audience. They would have appeared in the next morning’s New York Times as “losers . . . a fringe element . . . a collection of clowns” with guns and Klan hoods and Confederate flags. Unfortunately, it was left to Steve Bannon–a loser and a clown if there ever was one–to speak the truth about that ragtag group of misfits.

Had the counterprotesters not shown up, there would just as certainly have been no violence in what is now almost exclusively billed as the “violence in Charlottesville.” The major violence reported by the mainstream was, in fact, one vicious act by one man–the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields, Jr.  Other reports and videos of violence that day are difficult to find and seem to be divided equally between the two sides in the conflict.

The misleading–and almost universal–suggestion that there is a lack of moral equivalence between the hate-mongers on both sides has muddied all the discussions I have heard and read. My first encounter with this argument was once again on Facebook (maybe I should get out more?). Tayloe Harding wrote on August 15:

[I]n no conceivable way–embodied by the word of God, or the word of Americans in the US Constitution and in our Declaration of Independence and in the creation of countless institutions and relationships over the centuries, and represented in our world by all things decent–can the unlawful BEHAVIOR of some counter-protestors be equated in the arena of wrongness to the hate and bigotry and a PHILOSOPHY of exclusion and supremacy as held up by the organizations who created and delivered Unite for Right.

I thought I agreed with his basic premise; still, my response was that behavior can be punished under the law because assault is a crime, but philosophy or belief is protected under the Constitution. However, as I have learned in the ensuing days, the case is not nearly so simple.

I have concluded that the anti-fascist counterprotesters were indeed the most dangerous element in the kerfuffle that became the powder keg of Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. I have since read a great deal about this dangerous group, most recently “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which appears in the September issue of The Atlantic. Those who call themselves antifa hide behind masks. Their creed is anarchy, and their method is violence. They claim that their target is hate, but their actions and their words make it clear that they oppose what they call hate only with more hate.

“What they call hate”: There’s the rub. Antifa and those who cheer them or even stand by in silence have arrogated the lexicon. Hate is what they say it is. Hate is carrying the Confederate flag, but it is also carrying the American flag. Hate is a statue honoring a Confederate leader, but it is also Silent Sam, a statue honoring the 321 alumni of the University of North Carolina who lost their lives during the Civil War; worse, it is also the silent markers on graves in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood Cemetery. Hate is Thomas Jefferson and Sam Houston and Woodrow Wilson. Hate is a pipeline.

Worst of all, for these terrorists who have perverted the causes of democracy and inclusion and equality, hate is speech; hate is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Their violent acts have silenced speakers across the country, most notably at the University of  California, Berkeley, where they caused $100,000 worth of damage by hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and injured at least 27 people.

Nor does historical coincidence escape me. The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley marked the beginning of campus civil disobedience in the 1960s. Its leaders, activists in the civil rights, anti-war, and New Left movements, understood that the First Amendment was their only protection against the machine they opposed. They inspired the Chapel Hill students who opposed the draconian Speaker Ban Law passed by the North Carolina general assembly in 1963. In March 1996, Frank Wilkinson stood on a town-owned sidewalk on Franklin Street and delivered a speech to 1,200 peacefully assembled students standing on on the other side of the low stone wall marking the north boundary of the university.

Mario Savio leading student protesters at UC Berkeley, Nov. 20, 1964

Frank Wilkinson speaking in Chapel Hill, March 2, 1966; photo courtesy of the “News and Observer”

The First Amendment is and must remain the only arbiter of moral equivalence in our constitutional form of government. There can be no more eloquent expression of this avowal than the famous dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Abrams v. United States (1919):

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Library of Congress photo

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

Postscript, August 20, 2017
Yesterday, an estimated 40,000 counterprotesters, many of them violent, silenced a planned demonstration by First-Amendment advocates who planned a free-speech rally in Boston. CBS News, The Washington Post, and even Fox News felt compelled to use quotation marks for the phrase “free speech”–not, I suspect, because of adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style. NPR (please remember: I listen every day) went further in its headline:  “Boston Right-Wing ‘Free-Speech’ Rally Dwarfed by Counterprotesters.”

The irony is patent, and the First Amendment is in flames. It is not the only–but it is definitely the most alarming–casualty of a war of words gone perilously awry.

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5 Responses to Charlottesville, Boston, Berkeley and the Desecration of the First Amendment

  1. Boz says:

    An old and dear friend from high school–class valedictorian three years before me, alto sax virtuoso, Harvard JD, now expat in Switzerland–has taken me to task for this post, and I humbly accept his correction. He pointed out that the First Amendment prohibits only the government from interfering with an individuals’s right to free expression. I know that, and I am embarrassed for being so sloppy in my argument. My point remains, however, that when a large majority in our society believe that the right way to deal with opposing viewpoints is to silence them with shouts or clubs or worse, the spirit–though not the letter–of the First Amendment has been perverted.

  2. D. Riggs says:

    I find your political opinions to be interesting. You may have been a Democrat/Liberal years ago, but if you stay in the same place, I believe you will find yourself becoming farther away from today’s extreme liberalism. I believe many of today’s Republicans are like the Democrats of years ago. Sure, there are far-right kooks, but they are mostly the exception. I’d be interested in more of your opinions on how the Left is taking over the narrative in the schools, colleges, Hollywood, the media and social media. I find it disturbing how well they control thought in this country. They are becoming increasingly more extreme and and more intolerant of other views/opinions, to the point of shutting down speakers, etc. Parents are pulling their kids out of public schools because they don’t want them indoctrinated. You can’t turn on a television program without noticing the obvious liberal agendas being pushed. The Emmy’s and similar programs are brazen about it. Even the NFL is being politicized. Most news channels are pure Democrat-controlled propaganda. And, as you say, many liberals pushing this stuff have little clue about the history of this country. Millennials obsess over things like statues, pronouns, micro-aggressions, etc., and ignore the big picture. Where will this all end? What is the ultimate goal? Socialism? You seem to be an intelligent, thoughtful person, so hope you will write more on these subjects.

    • Boz says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are correct that I have other, more wide-ranging concerns than I have expressed in this post. Because I am an educator, my deepest fears are for the direction of education, as I expressed here: However, because I believe that the free exchange of ideas is the only way to ensure protection of the other civil liberties we enjoy, I do not share your concern about a monolith some call “the media.” Even though the mainstream media are undeniably left of center, I find their news coverage beyond reproach.

      Frankly, I do not see socialism as a bugaboo. The social programs provided by our government, beginning with the New Deal, are certainly socialist at their core, and I am sure the only workable solution to the healthcare crisis is something like Bernie Sanders’ current proposal of Medicare for all. We are behind the rest of the civilized world in this area.

      Otherwise, I do share what seems to be your distaste for many of the social and legal trends in society today. I have written elsewhere in the blog about some of these: campus rape, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” anti-smoking fanatics, and the Orwellian specter of so-called “politically correct” language.

      I look forward to hearing more from you!

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