The Cost of “Free” Speech: Dispatch from Charlottesville

“This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt, Acceptance Speech for Renomination for the Presidency, 1936

Photo: Bob Mical, Flickr

As a law student at the University of Virginia, I spent my summer fighting for and fighting to understand our rights and privileges under the First Amendment. By day at my internship, I fought for the expressive rights of college students and university faculty. I defended speech I disagreed with as earnestly as that which with I agreed, and I found my work both honorable and principled. In the evenings, I researched the intersection of free speech, tolerance, and hate speech for a professor at the law school, eventually arriving at the conclusion that speech causes far more injury than our courts have previously recognized.

I struggled with the realization that my work could be causing harm. I spent many nights wrestling with proposed alternatives, finding each potentially more harmful than the speech itself. As Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick of the University of Virginia School of Law reminded all of us, the costs of our freedom and our democracy are not borne equally. “Free” speech comes at a steep cost, and seeking justice for those wronged only begins to pay the price. Allowing the government to discern what speech is or is not permissible could lead to unfathomable displays of censorship and tyranny, and while well intentioned, prohibition of hate speech could in turn castrate the voices of those most greatly affected by that speech.

Early in my internship, I was warned that defending the First Amendment is not for the faint of heart. As the summer wore on, each day became an interesting exercise in cognitive dissonance as I attempted to balance the power and principle of free speech against the detrimental effects it can have. Often, those practicing in the First Amendment space are tasked with protecting the rights of others to say deplorable, heinous things, and the work and its consequences can rob practitioners of sleep and sanity. I remedied the two by reminding myself I was defending the principle of free speech, not the speech itself – the words themselves were ancillary to my true aim.

Last week, after days of intense job interviews, I prepared myself to defend the rights of the “alt-right” demonstrators in Charlottesville to speak their piece. I was to defend them despite the fact that I vehemently disagreed. I was prepared to defend the principle of free speech, while simultaneously exercising my right to counter their hate and speak the truth, as loudly and as earnestly as I could.

The torch display was protected, despite the fear it struck in my heart, and the hearts and minds of so many others. Let them chant “blood and soil” – men like my grandfather fought to eradicate their kind during World War II, and I was ready for the battle to commence on a different field, using words as my weapons.

After a morning meeting, I planned to join the counter-protesters. But the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency before I had the chance. I went home and cried alone in my apartment, watching the city I love be torn apart by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. I watched Heather Heyer’s murder live on Twitter, and watched in horror as the driver reversed. I’d been on that street the night before with friends, and we’d applauded the local businesses with signs in their windows refusing service to those invading our home.

Beating people with clubs? Not speech.

Spraying people with urine? Not speech.

Vehicular homicide? Not speech.

I paid my respects to Heather and those injured at the same spot today, leaving red carnations and a prayer with the other remembrances scattered in the street. A police car blocks the entryway, allowing the display to stand.

A poster left at the crash site reads:

Yesterday, my baby son took his first steps. Yesterday, as our sweet town was brought to its knees, a new generation found its feet. We will teach him to walk the right path, and to always stand for what is right. Just as these brave souls were injured and killed standing for what’s right. We will teach him that. LOVE ALWAYS WINS.

Part of me fears that my work this summer allowed this to happen, especially as college campuses prepare to host the perpetuators of hate, or prepare to face the difficult legal questions that accompany refusing to allow them to speak. In my opinion, renowned constitutional scholar Geoffrey Stone has it right – these people have nothing of value to add to “serious and reasoned discourse.”

Perhaps I’m not as principled as I thought. But much like the Greatest Generation, maybe the Millennials have a rendezvous with destiny. Maybe we all do. Because our democracy’s “destiny” has never concerned regression – and if the events of this weekend and this week are any indication, perhaps we aren’t progressing as quickly as we thought.


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