Column: Redefining free speech

By Dan Mollison

Last Saturday, a group of neo-Nazi white supremacists called the National Socialist Movement marched through a predominantly black community in Toledo, hurling insults and protesting the “black crime” they felt had been threatening white residents. Understandably, the black community members that the march targeted became enraged. When police allowed the white supremacists to continue protesting, a riot ensued that resulted in several damaged properties and 114 arrests.

While neo-Nazis deserve to be extended the same liberties as any other group, this riot is an indication that we may need to rethink our current limitations on freedom of expression and restrict speech that is intended to incite violence.

The neo-Nazi protesters had a message they wanted others to hear, and it’s important that we respect this regardless of how we feel about their views. But the problem here is that the group’s message was conveyed in a way that seems intended to provoke a violent response rather than to make their ideas heard.

If protesters are arguing for some type of change, it’s only logical that the best place to voice their concerns would be to the people who have the power to make these changes. For example, groups that want the University to retire the Chief are primarily directing their message toward the Board of Trustees – the group that has the power to make this change – rather than targeting Chief-supporters. If the National Socialist Movement truly intended to protest Toledo’s mishandled crime situation, it would have been most sensible for them to vocalize their concerns in front of the city’s police station or at city hall, where those with the power to make changes reside.

Instead, they chose to venture into a predominantly black neighborhood, directing their message toward a general group of blacks who have no ability to help the situation on a large scale. Considering the fact that the marchers were reportedly hurling insults at the community members they encountered, it becomes clear that their intent was not to spread awareness of their concerns; they wanted to infuriate and provoke a reaction from blacks.

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It’s true that our justice system allows us to say anything we want so long as it doesn’t pose a “clear and present danger” to those around us, and it’s important that we continue to offer this right to everyone – even to those who use this privilege to openly advocate their hatred of others. If we don’t honor these people’s rights, we wouldn’t be maintaining a free environment in America in which we all can openly express our opinions. But people do have choices in how they present their ideas; if they choose to express them in a way that is intended to ignite a violent reaction from others, then they should be held responsible for it.

This isn’t to say that people who react with violence aren’t responsible for their actions. No matter what provoked it, violence is always a choice, and it should never be considered acceptable in our society for someone to respond to another’s words or actions with force. But in situations in which a group’s intention for speaking is solely to incite violence from another group, they share part of the blame when a riot ensues. The danger they created may not have been “clear and present,” but it is a threat to public safety nonetheless. Just ask the Toledo business owners whose stores were looted.

Terrance Anderson, a Toledo community resident, declared that the white supremacists “don’t have the right to bring hate to my front yard.” But he’s wrong; they do have this right. And because the group exercised their right in this manner, public safety was compromised. Freedom of speech is valuable, but not at the costs of endangering people’s lives. In order to protect the safety and property of Americans, we cannot allow those who intend to incite violence – and then succeed – go unpunished.

Dan Mollison is a junior in LAS. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].