Using the Freedom of Speech and of the Press to Condemn Other People's Freedom of Speech

Using the Freedom of Speech and of the Press to Condemn Other People's Freedom of Speech
(AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

My good friend William Tech’s website, The Pirate’s Cove, has as it’s blog tagline, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” That’s the important part of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What part of “no law” is so difficult to understand?

Well, some very good people in Minnesota are very upset that the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and religion of people they despise. From The Washington Post:

Facing a First Amendment fight, a small Minnesota town allows a White supremacist church

By Kim Bellware | December 14, 2020 | 6:00 AM EST

The nation’s ascendant White supremacy movement and small-town bureaucracy collided in rural Minnesota last week when a city council vote over a zoning permit made the 273-person city of Murdock the latest First Amendment battleground.

The Murdock City Council voted 3-1 during a virtual meeting Wednesday to allow the Asatru Folk Assembly to turn the run-down church it purchased in July into its first “hof,” or gathering place, in the Midwest. The looming presence of the obscure Nordic folk religion, widely classified as a White supremacist hate group by extremism and religious experts, promoted months of pushback from concerned residents.

The group purchased a building, and were planning to use it for a legal purpose. The Mayor and City Council didn’t like it, but them not liking it did not mean the city government had any right to block a legal assembly.

Some, naturally, argue that the First Amendment should not cover such a group:

Murdock’s issue underscores the deficiencies with the First Amendment and exposes a lack of neutrality in who it really protects, argued Laura Beth Nielsen, who chairs the Sociology Department at Northwestern University and wrote the 2004 book “License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech.”

“Right now, every local government is broke trying to deal with coronavirus. The idea that you would arguably subject yourself to a costly lawsuit — what town would want to do that?” Nielsen said. “But letting these organizations flourish and take root is scary, especially if you’re the Black or the Jewish family in town.”

She said Murdock’s individual battle is taking place in a broader legal and social environment where, “in the universe of the First Amendment, White people tend to win.”

White people tend to win? Surely there was little more offensive speech than that of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who called Judaism a “gutter religion.” He was condemned for that, but not fined or imprisoned, because his speech, no matter how vile, is protected by the First Amendment. The Reverend Al Sharpton has uttered plenty of anti-white and anti-Semitic bovine feces, but his statements, too, have, and deserve to have, the protection of the First Amendment. I do not have to like Messrs Farrakhan and Sharpton to believe that they have freedom of speech just as much as I do.

There’s a bit of irony in all of this, because Professor Neilsen is exercising her freedom of speech and freedom of the press to complain that other people’s freedom of speech and of peaceable assembly is “scary.”

There’s much more at the Post original, with statements by other people, but I want to point out the final two paragraphs:

Nielsen, the Northwestern sociologist, noted that cities routinely restrict the First Amendment over issues it prioritizes, such as anti-pandhandling ordinances or obscenity laws.

“Even though the First Amendment is supposed to operate in this neutral way, when you dig in, hate speech against racial minorities is protected; harassment of women is protected,” Nielsen said. “In the big picture, the First Amendment is reinforcing who already has power.”

To be fair, there is no quotation from the good professor that she believes the First Amendment should somehow be restricted; whether she says anything like that in any of her books, I do not know. But I do know that restrictions on speech, were they allowed, could condemn my website, given that my published Stylebook is not supportive of homosexuality and does not accept ‘transgenderism.’ With the incoming Administration of Joe Biden, RedState could be shut down by the government for the many articles there which claim that the Democrats engaged in massive fraud and stole a presidential election they did not legitimately win.¹

When freedom of speech or the press is limited, the ox which gets gored depends on just who has the power to gore it.

The First Amendment has been used to protect many things I do not like: the American Nazi Party’s march in heavily Jewish Skokie, Illinois, the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests at the funerals of American soldiers, in Snyder v Phelps (2011), or the flag burning case, Texas v Johnson (1989), but it was right to protect those offensive actions. The First Amendment protects The Washington Post’s right to print Professor Neilsen’s objections. There are many things I’d rather not see voiced or printed, but it would be far, far worse for the government to have the power to ban them.
¹ – I would note here that none of my articles make that claim.
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