Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Toledo Riot

The neo-Nazis had a right to march in Toledo, Ohio on October 15th. They had a right to march where they marched. The wrongdoers, in this instance, were the protestors who decided to respond to their message with violence. (News)

This is not to say that I approve of the neo-Nazi message. In fact, that's not the point. The person who defends "freedom of speech" only when the speech is something he agrees with does not understand the concept.

In fact, neo-Nazis place atheists on the same list as Jews, blacks, and foreigners. The only reason that this aspect of their philosophy is not widely heard is because the neo-Nazi attitude towards atheists is mainstream, so it is not newsworthy. Yet, in spite of its widespread acceptance, and in spite of power in blocking atheists from public office, I still hold that the anti-Atheist hate groups have a right to freedom of speech.

The Insult Argument

One of the arguments that I often hear against allowing the neo-Nazis to march is that others have a right not be subject to being insulted and offended. The claim seems to be that a person has a right to walk down the street without hearing anybody say anything that he or she does not like.

The concept of a "freedom of speech" is nonsense if it does not include an obligation to put up with insults and offense from time to time. The individual who says (or writes), "I am in favor of freedom of speech, so long as the speaker does not say anything that I find insulting or offensive" is not really for freedom of speech. A so-called "right" to be free from insult and offense is nothing other than a "right" to suppress speech that is insulting or offensive. If we give groups or individuals the legal "right" to suppress speech they find insulting or offensive, then there is no free speech.

The right to freedom of speech means an obligation to take an insult and to suffer offense without resorting to violence against the speaker. It says that a citizen may get angry, and counter offensive and insulting speech with speech of their own, but that if speech results in violence, it is the person who threw the punch who is at fault, not the person who spoke.


I have also heard some people defend the position that the neo-Nazis be allowed to march, but that their march should have been confined to some other neighborhood where fewer people who would be offended. The fault, they say, is that the city officials allowed the marchers into a neighborhood made up largely of African Americans immigrants and people of eastern-European descent.

Let us take this suggestion to its logical conclusion. Even if we move the marchers into another neighborhood, some people there would still find the words offensive and insulting.

We would not say if somebody is attempting to rob a hundred people, that we have lived up to our duties if we place him in a different neighborhood where he can rob only ten. There is no moral sense in saying that a legitimate response to somebody who wants to blow up a bus with thirty passengers should be directed instead to a bus that blows up three.

If a thousand people have a "right" to be free from offense and insult, then it makes no sense to say that a hundred people do not have the same right or that, in virtue of their lower number, they have no such right. So, if it is wrong to insult a thousand people then it is wrong to insult ten. And if it is wrong to insult ten, then it is wrong to insult one. The only option remaining is to put these speakers in a place where nobody can hear them, so nobody will be offended or insulted by their words.

What happens to the freedom of speech if we pursue this option? Let us imagine a dictator who says that he has decided to grant freedom of speech in his country. He will allow his political opponents to say whatever they want, so long as they do so in a soundproof room, with the door closed, alone, with nobody looking through the window who can read his lips.

Would this satisfy us that freedom of speech is truly being protected? Or would we consider this attempt to allow people to speak but to restrict who may hear his words to be a joke?

Hopefully, we are smart enough to see it as a joke. It is just as much a joke to say that the neo-Nazis may have their march, but they must march "over there" where far fewer people can see and hear them.

Other Insults

Why do we need this freedom? Why do people not have a right to be free from insults and offense?

Simply look at the things that can be considered offensive. A group of people who are protesting a war "insult" and "offend" military families who took up arms themselves or have friends and family who took up arms and fought in that war. A law banning offensive and insulting speech can make sure that the next anti-war rally is routed through some deserted streets where they cannot be seen or heard by those they might offend.

Consider the how the anti-abortion marcher "insults" doctors whom they call murderers and compare to Nazi soldiers willingly participating in a new genocide. If offense and insult justifies moving these speakers away from where they cannot be heard, then we need more than a corridor of free passage to the door of the abortion clinic; abortion-clinic protestors will have to be moved out of earshot of any patrons.

Civil Order

I am not saying that the freedom of speech is an absolute and that all other considerations must give way. Individuals have no obligation to put up with a nuisance with a bull horn shouting slogans outside of his window all day and all night. If a parade or march threatens to tie up traffic or cause some other type of civil disturbance, than city officials have a right to demand advanced notice so that they can be prepared. As a result, city officials have a right to demand that speakers obtain permits.

However, those permits may not be accepted or declined based on their content. If the March of Dimes is allowed to have a walk-a-thon go through a residential neighborhood, then a neo-Nazi organization has a right to walk through that same neighborhood. Government officials have no right to say, "We approve of this message so you may speak here where others can hear and see you. We do not approve of that message so the speakers are limited to locations where we know few people will encounter their message."

Prohibiting any group from shouting slogans on the street day and night is not an issue of content. It's an issue of getting some sleep.


Ultimately, we need to ask who provides the greatest danger to the public. Does the danger come from a dozen radicals who are walking along a public street surrounded by police hurling insults? Or does it come from those who decided to hurl rock?

It was not the neo-Nazis who wounded the police officers who were doing their job. One of them in critical condition after getting hit in the head with a brick. She was defending free speech from those who could not stand the idea of allowing others to speak freely.

It was not the neo-Nazis that looted and sat fire to the bar.

It was not the neo-Nazis that proved by their actions that they have no regard for the life, limb, and property of their peaceful and innocent neighbors.

The next question is whether the people of Toledo value freedom enough to elect politicians willing to defend it, or if they will yield to the intimidation of those who proved that they are willing to use violence to see those freedoms suppressed.


Anonymous said...

So you mean the "Free Speech Zones," set up inside chain-link fence topped with razor wire blocks away from the president during the last election, weren't really about free speech?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Absolutely not. Any more than it makes sense to call a prison a "free living community."

And, thank you for recommending a topic for a future discussion.