A bizarre, but sadly familiar, scene occurred over the weekend in Sacramento, California as another protest ended in violence. A group calling themselves the Traditional Workers’ Party (TWP) had a permit to hold a public rally near the steps of the California statehouse. A group of counter-protesters, describing themselves broadly as anti-fascists, showed up as well. According to The Sacramento Bee write-up on the event, the TWP group had roughly 30 members while the anti-fascists had about 350. Additionally, there were some 100 police officers on site to keep the protest peaceful. They were not successful.
James Lee Clark, a homeless activist, said he was surprised that police allowed the anti-fascist demonstrators to engage the neo-Nazis.
“It was weird,” he said. “They usually they don’t let us anywhere near them.”
“We’ve protested against them (neo-Nazis) in previous years, and we’ve never been allowed on state property during the rally, and this time we were there,” he added. “We had the steps. They didn’t try to stop us … it was a pretty interesting dynamic.”
With those important facts out of the way, we can move on to discuss the appropriate reaction to such an event.
In this case, the white supremacist rally should be permitted. No matter how abhorrent their views are, the rally is still protected political speech. And unless it crosses the line to imminent calls for violence and destruction, it is not aggression. Thus, aggression should not be initiated against them by the government or anyone else. Their actions merit extreme contempt and criticism, not violence.
This is the paradox of a free society: When people are truly free, they must have the right to advocate for less freedom. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but it is not. It is simply a necessary consequence of applying the nonaggression principle seriously.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that different libertarian solutions can go a long way toward minimizing the importance of this issue. This problem only arises in regards to the use of public property and public roads. If the TWP wanted to organize a white supremacist rally on privately owned property, the decision would be left exclusively up to the property owner, who would presumably deny them the privilege of doing so. It’s only when we get to public spaces that the government’s position on free speech is relevant. Everywhere else, private property owners have the right to suppress the speech they deem unpalatable. Thus, if there are fewer public spaces in which to hold a rally, there are fewer controversies regarding which rallies ultimately take place.
The Case for Restrictions on the First Amendment
Of course, not everyone looks at the world or even this issue through the libertarian lens. Some believe that white supremacist views are sufficiently dangerous that they should be suppressed. This in turn leads to some creative arguments to try to circumvent the speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. Here, I’ll touch on a couple leading prospects.
Disturbing the Peace / Provoking Lawless Action
The going standard now on whether free speech is permissible is whether or not it will inspire “imminent lawless action”. And there’s a way in which it’s easy to see how the white supremacist rally, or even Trump rallies, could be viewed as provoking the imminent lawless action. The causal links looks like this.
White supremacist group plans a rally > counter-protesters respond to rally with force to “shut it down” > violence and lawlessness ensues, just as it did in Sacramento.
This chain of events is not hard to understand, and it’s true that the initial rally is the proximate cause of the lawlessness that follows. Indeed, based on this interview that Heimbach did with the Southern Poverty Law Center, it appears a confrontation was the expected outcome of the weekend’s protest. Thus, one could make a case that the rally sparked imminent lawless action (or disturbed the peace) and should be banned accordingly.
However, it should be clear that this line of reasoning leads to unacceptable outcomes. In effect, it would mean that any group can be denied First Amendment assembly / speech protections if an opposition group responds with sufficient force and violence. If it ever became established law, it would actually reward groups that respond violently to ideas and speech that they oppose. That is, no matter how cordially and properly an unpopular cause tried to assemble, they could be still be denied rights based on the reaction of other groups they cannot influence. Obviously, this is not a desirable situation.
Speech is Illegitimate
Another kind of argument against allowing white supremacist rallies holds that the views hold no legitimate value. Clearly, political proposals founded on white supremacist ideology aren’t going to be too solid. The question is, Who gets to decide what speech is legitimate and what speech is not?
The answer is the government. And that’s also why this solution is unworkable. If the government can arbitrarily decide what speech is permissible, it’s likely to crack down on dissent generally. Indeed, historically, we’ve seen this occur many times in America and elsewhere.
No matter what approach we try, the downsides of restricting the First Amendment are going to outweigh any benefits. The First Amendment exists to protect minority and unpopular viewpoints, some of which will have merit and some of which will not. But it has to be an all-or-nothing decision. If the government can pick and choose between which types of speech are allowed, then free speech might as well cease to exist.
Above, we argued that cracking down on free speech is both wrong and undesirable. If you’d like to see the white supremacist movement further marginalized as I would, it’s also unhelpful.
We noted before that one of the lead counter-protesters suggested that the weekend’s violence will actually prevent violence in the future. That is technically possible, if the police presence proves more prepared next time around. In the meantime, however, the counter-protesters actions were deeply counterproductive. They transformed a minor local story that probably wouldn’t even make the 10 o’clock news into a national story, giving more publicity to the white supremacists than they could have dreamed of.
In fact, Heimbach basically admitted that the overreaction of the left is really their objective in these rallies. From the SPLC interview (emphasis added):
This was a rally for freedom of speech both for nationalists here and around the world. The fact that our free speech rally was attacked by the supposed forces of tolerance I think indicates the importance of rallies like this. We are solidifying a political movement to be able to advocate for our faith, our family, and our folk. That’s our primary objective…
These [leftist] forces talk about tolerance. They talk about freedom of expression. They talk about all these sorts of things. But there wouldn’t have been violence if they had not attacked us. If they had simply stood behind a police barricade they could have tried to drown out our message. They could have simply ignored us and held a rally for their own political agenda, and no one would have gotten hurt. But they organized political terrorism in a premeditated fashion and brought deadly weapons to this event to try and stop our freedom of speech, to stop our freedom of assembly, our First Amendment rights, and to stop our message of nationalism. It seems to be a pretty clear-cut thing of attempted political intimidation and a violation of our civil rights.
Notice what’s going on here. This is a person whose ideas would garner virtually no support or sympathy in any normal setting. But because his event just got attacked, he can actually play the victim card while pointing out the (very real) hypocrisy of his opponents. Just imagine how this story must play to regular everyday Americans on the right–most of whom are probably very sick of hearing about crazy activism stories from college campuses. Like everyone else, they probably didn’t know the first thing about the TWP. Now, because of the violent reaction, this group is likely to be lumped in with other groups that got targeted by crazy leftists. That is to say, the counter-protesters’ opposition to this group does more to legitimize them than almost any other force could.
There is no conceivable way this outcome should be viewed as a success by the counter-protesters.
A much better approach, speaking purely on strategic grounds, is to let the TWP have their rally and hope Mr. Heimbach makes liberal use of the microphone himself. This group’s actual views are so bad that they are self-refuting. We have to believe the overwhelming majority of the American public is not going to be enthralled with a person who still condemns the “Jewry” and “usury”[charging interest] and “miscegenation”[interracial marriage], or one who has literally advocated for “re-education centers”. As a bonus, his colleague also refers to people as “comrades”. Yeah, I’m sure that will play real well to an American audience. (If you click that link, be forewarned. Looks like a dark place.)
There is absolutely no reason to use extreme tactics to prevent a group like the TWP from holding a rally. The First Amendment doesn’t need to be gutted for the sake of stopping white supremacy and violence isn’t the answer either. Trying to suppress hateful speech only succeeds in giving it legitimacy it does not deserve. Stop doing it.
*For example, in this link, the Southern Poverty Law Center refers offhand to Pat Buchanan as a White Nationalist. Buchanan is a conservative and a nationalist, and he is a white guy, but obviously it ought to take something more than that to justify the label. It’s possible I’m simply unfamiliar with a major part of his work, but for now, this seems like a completely unwarranted slur against a man who is one of the strongest antiwar voices on the right.