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Protected Speech?

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People can believe whatever they'd like, ghosts, flying saucers, even things that are totally ridiculous, like the moon being made of green cheese. Or their beliefs can express their biases like those who believe in the superiority of the white race.

"Therefore the heart of our creed is this: What is good for the White Race is the highest virtue; what is the bad for the White Race is the ultimate sin. We call this our Golden Rule." Ben Klassan, "White Man's Bible."

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Or people can choose beliefs that defy scientific evidence like the belief that climate change isn't real.

Beliefs tell us little, at least little of worth, about the world in which we live -- about the moon, biological differences, or global warming. Yet the right to choose our beliefs is guaranteed by the Constitution, even if our choices are ignorant and biased. It's one of the freedoms we enjoy in this great nation, a freedom paid for and guaranteed by the blood and sacrifice of many brave Americans, many of who, ironically, are the objects of such ignorance and bias. While a person's beliefs tell us little about the world, it does, however, provide us insight into his level of intelligence and moral character.

Limitations on Freedom

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Beliefs have relevance, however, because they can influence how people relate to others within the community, what they say and how they act. The right to express these beliefs, freedom of speech, is guaranteed by the First Amendment, something democratic states like our own take very seriously. Speech can be used constructively, to express and communicate ideas for the betterment of the community and of humankind, or destructively as a weapon to threaten, harass, intimidate, coerce, and influence violence. Racists' beliefs, for example, can inspire hatred and violence towards African Americans, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc.

We wage war against hate groups like al Qaeda and Isis, freeze their assets, incarcerate suspected members in deplorable prisons like Guantanamo Bay, and summarily execute their "leaders," including those with American citizenship -- Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16 year old son, and 8 year old daughter -- the deaths of the latter two being explained as collateral damage. We feel justified in doing so, not because we disagree with their hateful beliefs and ideology, but rather because they have chosen, allegedly, to act upon their beliefs and influence others to do so as well in a manner that violates the dignity and the rights of other human beings. John Stuart Mill, the progenitor of Libertarianism and strong advocate for individual freedom, recognized the infringement of the rights of others as valid justification for limiting personal liberty. He writes,

"The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it . . . The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others." John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty."

According to Mill, therefore, a person must be allowed to believe and say what he likes, unless and until these beliefs are acted upon and negatively impacts, either directly or indirectly, the well-being, livelihood, and the ability of others to enjoy their rights and to live fulfilling lives.

Even President Trump has admitted, albeit reluctantly, that the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups have and continue to prosecute and advocate violence against others based upon religious beliefs, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual preference. "Racism is evil," Mr. Trump tells us, "and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."

This characterization and condemnation of such groups is not mere speculation and opinion as their propensity for hatred, intimidation, harassment, coercion, violence, and murder has adequate historical basis and, as evidenced by the recent occurrences in Charlottesville and elsewhere, continues to this day. According to a Department of Justice Study, from 2007 to 2011, an estimated 259,700 hate crime victimizations occurred in the United States. In comparison, according to Aaron Bandler of the Daily Wire, there have been 13 "verifiable radical Islamic terror attacks successfully planned and executed on U.S. soil since Obama first took office in 2009." Ben Klassen, founder and former leader of the World of the Creator, a white supremacist "Christian" organization clearly expressed the agenda and the seriousness of the threat posed by his and similar hate groups.

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"We gird for total war against the Jews and the rest of the goddamned mud (non white) races of the world -- politically, militantly, financially, morally and religiously. In fact, we regard it as the heart of our religious creed, and as the most sacred credo of all. We regard it as a holy war to the finish -- a racial holy war. Rahowa! is INEVITABLE. " No longer can the mud races and the White Race live on the same planet."
--Ben Klassen, 1987

How different is Klassen's expression of violent intent from the threatening and hateful rhetoric of the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? I am not advocating, of course, that we drone kill Klassen, David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, or Dillon Hopper, the leader of the Neo Nazi group that James Field marched with in Charlottesville before killing Heather Heyer, but neither should we view their behavior as free speech and protected under the Constitution. The right to free speech, etc., does not require that we afford the bin Ladens and Baghdadis of the world the means to radicalize and recruit new members, spread their message of hate, and influence other weak minded individuals to commit violence and murder by granting them the opportunity to celebrate their ideology of hate by parading, demonstrating, and speaking at universities. To describe what the Klansmen, Nazis, White Supremacists, etc., say and advocate as protected speech and merely as an expression of their beliefs and ideology is to mischaracterize and diminish the severity of what they advocate and how they behave.

Conclusion

Though clearly repugnant and un-American, it is not the moral depravity of the beliefs of hate groups but their actions -- their provocative speech, violence, and murder -- that are condemnable and must not be tolerated in civilized society. So believe what you want, hate whomever you'd like; even ignorant and biased beliefs are protected under the Constitution. But be warned, should your beliefs and hatred negatively impact the well-being, livelihood, and human rights of other human beings, the state and the people will intervene.

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Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include "Beyond PTSD: The Moral (more...)
 

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