Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind: Charlottesville, Durham, and the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Civil Discourse
by Hayden Daniel ‘19
A crowd bearing torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans marches past columned buildings, stopping at a statue embodying a past to which they desperately cling, listening to a speaker who pours forth a hateful tirade. Another crowd, perhaps more aptly called an angry mob, tears down a statue which to them represents a past that they both despise and of which they wish to absolve themselves before moving forward into a new era of political enlightenment. One of these scenes could have played out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, while the other could have easily taken place in 1960s China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Yet, these incidents did not happen in another era or thousands of miles away, they happened here in the U.S.A.
These two incidents are connected parts of a growing trend in American political discourse. The event in Charlottesville, VA represents the growing debate about the presence of statues and monuments connected to a past which many are not proud of as well as the limit of free speech in the public discourse. Charlottesville, as well as the incident in Durham, North Carolina, also represents the disturbing growth of political violence as a response to differing opinions, and a growing penchant on the Left to engage in extreme and often extralegal actions to achieve their political agenda. Both of these issues threaten not only the statues that engendered these debates, but also the deliberative, peaceful democratic process in America.
In Charlottesville, VA, an hour away from Lexington, protesters joined a rally held by white supremacists to object to the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The torchlight march gave way to general protests the next day. Counter-protesters, many a part of the “Antifa” (anti-fascist) movement that has sprung up in the last few months to oppose the supposed fascist actions of President Donald Trump, soon flooded the town in order to confound the efforts of the protesters. The “Antifa” movement has garnered a considerable degree of infamy over the last year due to the prevalence of violence at their protests, most notably at the campus of the UC Berkeley. There, members of the movement clashed with right-wing protesters, caused widespread property damage, and prevented free-speech activist Milo Yiannopoulos as well as conservative pundit Ann Coulter from speaking on campus. As can be expected when two extremist groups come into close proximity, skirmishes soon broke out. As local officials declared that the rally was “an unlawful assembly,” Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and law enforcement began to disperse the crowd. As the skirmishes began to die down and the counter-protesters marched through the streets of Charlottesville, a final despicable and grievous blow was struck when a car rammed through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one. A few days later, a protest in Durham, North Carolina organized in solidarity with the Charlottesville counter-protesters rallied around the Confederate Soldiers Monument outside of the Durham County Courthouse. One of the protesters scaled the statue, tied a rope around its neck, and proclaimed loudly, “We are the revolution.” The statue came crashing down amidst cheers of jubilation from the protesters, who proceeded to further vandalize the statue by kicking and spitting on it in a spiteful display of disregard for public property and peaceful protest.
The actions in Charlottesville by those who wish to keep the statue were reprehensible, and the considerable presence of the KKK and other fringe groups only undermined the argument to keep the statue. Ultimately, the presence of such racists organizations only hurt those who wished to preserve the statue for less hateful reasons. While the counter-protesters also engaged in violent and rather un-democratic behavior, equating their behavior to the protesters’ behavior and vice-versa does not excuse the actions of either group. The amount of blame assigned to the protesters, counter-protesters, and even the police for the eruption and subsequent escalation of the violence in Charlottesville has been hotly debated. Along with the continued presence of statues and monuments that honor individuals associated with the Confederate States of America, the place of speech deemed by some to be “hateful” or “offensive” has reentered the media limelight and the public forum, with many far-left activists and pundits advocating that such speech should be limited or even banned.
Both the right to speech, no matter how vile and hateful, and the right to peaceably assemble are duly protected under the First Amendment. The right to promulgate so-called “hate speech” has been reaffirmed by numerous Supreme Court cases, most notably Brandenburg v. Ohio and the National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, Illinois. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to free speech, in this case a slur-filled rally by the KKK of Ohio, is protected under the First Amendment unless that speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” In National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, the Supreme Court ruled against the village of Skokie, Illinois, which had attempted to prevent a Neo-Nazi rally in its city limits, concluding that the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed unless it is similarly directed to inciting imminent lawless action. The right for the government to intervene and prevent speech that could be dangerous to public safety was strictly defined by the Supreme Court in Schenck v. U.S., in which the Court determined that only speech which presented a “clear and present danger” to the public could be restricted by the government.
While the speech at the rally in Charlottesville was repulsive and the assembly of such extremist groups is not desirable in any town, the right of the protesters, and the counter-protesters as well, to say what they want and assemble peacefully is fully protected under the First Amendment. After violence broke out between the protesters and counter-protesters, intervention on the part of city and state law enforcement was appropriate, even if it limited the right of free speech. As long as the speech or the assembly is peaceful and does not incite unlawful action, no matter how hateful or repugnant it is, it should continue to be protected by the First Amendment.
However, despite the long history of court precedent that has time and again protected the right of free speech, that right has once again come under attack from radicals in the far-left. There have been renewed calls by activists to limit the speech of those who they deem to be “hateful,” but this course of action leads to a dangerous path that ends in despotism. Today, the speech that is under scrutiny is reviled by just about everyone in mainstream politics, but tomorrow the speech being deemed “hateful” may be a legitimate argument. If small groups of activists are allowed to judge what speech is “offensive,” and we then take legal action to limit that speech merely because we do not agree with it or it is inconvenient to our current political predilections, then what is to stop those groups from eventually targeting legitimate speech? By this model, could speech that regards abortion as immoral or gay marriage to be illegitimate be stifled in the future? What will the punishment be for someone who nevertheless continues to express an opinion that is deemed “offensive?” Will they be simply fined? Have all speech rights rescinded? Fired from their job and blacklisted from a future career? Be sent to a gulag to be “reeducated?” Will they stop at statues, speeches, and demonstrations, or will these zealots continue on to books, banning or even burning those they deem offensive? Google has already begun to sever support for far-right websites, blogs, and YouTube accounts. Censoring speech, even speech we vehemently disagree with, always carries the risk of bringing George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of Big Brother’s Airstrip One from the written page into reality.
The incident in Durham provides a disturbing preview of this possibility. What began as a lawful, peaceful protest soon turned into a wanton destruction of public property and a shocking display of political vigilantism. The statue that was so unceremoniously removed honored Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War, and its destruction is an insult to all those men to whom the monument is dedicated, the vast majority of whom did not own any slaves. The removal of the statue by what amounts to mob violence is part of a trend toward political violence that has been rising in America that includes the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore as well as the violent demonstrations that have plagued UC Berkeley, infamously spearheaded by the “Anti-fa” movement and other related groups. The removal of the statue was deemed illegal by a law passed just after the wave of anti-Confederate sentiment that accompanied the Charleston Church shooting in 2015, but instead of campaigning to repeal the law and remove the statue through legal means, the protesters decided to take the law into their own hands in the name of what they term “social justice.” They deemed that the removal of something they consider to be offensive or deem a hindrance to their egalitarian political agenda more important than respect for the law and the peaceful political process. The incident in Durham is yet another example of the Left resorting to violence, intimidation, and vigilantism in the face of opinions with which they do not agree and turning to extralegal methods in the face of issues they have neither the will nor the desire to confront using the law of the United States. If the left continues to use these sorts of tactics, and if conservatives similarly begin to employ them, then the entire process of civil political debate in America comes under the threat of mob violence and mob rule. If we allow these sorts of reactions to continue unabated in our politics, then we invite further political violence and possible anarchy. Indeed, if the protesters’ use of mob violence goes unanswered and unpunished, then it is a signal to other groups that mob violence can be freely used to accomplish their goals without any repercussion, and the use of such tactics will proliferate throughout American politics. While many are justified in their anger over what happened in Charlottesville, neither conservatives nor liberals should condone the actions taken in Durham, because the sort of political vigilantism displayed by the Durham protesters only further erodes the lawful political process in America.
These disturbing events in Charlottesville, in Durham, and around the country beg the question: how will this impact W&L and Lexington given its strong ties to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy? The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, the subject of the protests and counter-protests, will go down along with scores of other Confederate statues across the nation in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. The debate will continue to grow, and the debate has turned to the memorial to Stonewall Jackson and even to the Recumbent Lee in Lee Chapel. Lexington has already experienced controversy over its Confederate past with the annual Lee-Jackson Day Parade held by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the outlawing of Confederate flags within the city limits. W&L is still struggling with its legacy, the name of the university is comprised of two slaveholders, and its commitment to an inclusive and diverse learning environment, as can be seen with the latest controversy of the Administration briefly removing Lee Chapel from the University Tour for prospective students.
Soon, the debate will shift to not only to Confederate figures, but to any figure in American history who was a slaveholder or held a negative view about race. Al Sharpton recently stated on Charlie Rose that the Jefferson Memorial should be removed because of Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, regardless of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Angela Rye, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus and currently a political commentator on CNN, stated that not only should Jefferson Memorial be removed, but that the Washington Monument should be dismantled as well. Once Robert E. Lee is removed or marginalized from W&L, the debate may shift to George Washington and his relationship with slavery, and Old George, who stands proudly atop Washington Hall, may become the next victim of political correctness run amok.
As the debate comes to Lexington and Washington and Lee, we must not let the debate devolve into violence such as in Charlottesville or into acts of vandalism such as in Durham. If we do not maintain a civil and measured debate, we may see extremist groups flood onto campus looking for their next battleground or we may see mobs tearing down the Jackson memorial or forcibly removing the Recumbent Lee. If we allow the poison of political vigilantism to be normalized within our political system, the tradition of civil debate that we hold so dear in this country and on this campus could come under threat. Whether one is for the maintenance of Confederate monuments or for their complete removal from the public sphere, measured, informed, and peaceful debate is always the most effective way of championing one’s position.