Lost amidst the contentious free speech debate in the wake of neo-Nazi protests and violent demonstrations is the burning question: whatever the extent of our free speech rights, who is going to protect them?
Answer: the police, according to one higher education activist.
“Freedom of expression is what gives us the ability to hash out societal issues through argument instead of physical conflict,” says Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Equal Rights in Education, “but it is only meaningful when people are reasonably confident that they will be physically safe while they speak and listen.”
Shibley, writing in USA Today, claims that “when the authorities simply stand by and let political violence occur, even in the hope of the conflict somehow ‘de-escalating’ itself, they send the message that both sides have a free hand to violently attack their opponents.” This passive lawlessness “makes a mockery” out of the free speech and assembly rights contained within the First Amendment.
There are troubling signs, Shibley notes, that police have taken a hands-off approach to anti-speech violence in recent months. He describes a woman at the violent Berkeley protests who had come to see the speech. “Having been pepper-sprayed and nearly blinded by a violent protester,” he writes, “she told me she crawled over three layers of crowd barriers to reach a building with dozens of police inside. Yet when she reached the door, the police refused her entry.”
The same can be argued about police behavior surrounding the recent Charlottesville riots, Shibley claims: “The organizer of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally complained that ‘police purposefully created the catastrophe that led to a melee in the streets of Charlottesville,’ while a Black Lives Matter leader attending the counter-protest remarked, ‘It’s almost as if they wanted us to fight each other.'”
It’s hard to think of a more thankless task than riot policing. But when authorities fail at the basic task of preventing mob violence, both political and policy questions need to be asked. When the Huffington Post reports that “Several times, a group of assault-rifle-toting militia members from New York State … played a more active role in breaking up fights” than the police, law enforcement’s response needs serious rethinking.
There is one group of people who have so far consistently benefitted when political violence has been allowed to take place: the politicians who lead our localities and the de facto politicians who run our campuses. They avoid the political fallout from images of police confronting violent protesters (who may also be their supporters), they get to blame whichever side they like less for causing the violence, and get to pretend to fulfill their responsibility to keep people “safe” by making it harder for controversial viewpoints to be expressed.
Ann Coulter had to cancel a speech at Berkeley after the school insisted it would not be safe for her to speak on campus. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe blamed the ACLU of Virginia and a federal judge for blocking the city’s attempt to revoke the rally’s permit, saying “We’ve got to look at these permits.” This week, Texas A&M and the University of Florida announced that safety concerns prevented them from hosting speeches by Richard Spencer that are several weeks away. In contrast, in the 1960s American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell was able to speak at UCLA, Michigan State, Brown, and other colleges, before audiences containing people who might have fought — or lost loved ones to — actual German Nazis. How can it be that hosting a similar speaker is impossible now?
“Trading our free speech rights for the opportunity to be victimized by political violence,” Shibley writes, “is tremendously foolish, as is turning the blame for it on our civil liberties or those who defend them.”