However crazy it sounds, an idea that came to me in high school bears heavily on the burst of recent, overlapping national controversies about free speech, peaceful protests, and political violence. In fact, it spotlights what looks like a gaping, increasingly important, and increasingly worrisome hole in U.S. Constitutional protections not only for legitimate expressions of opinions, but for exercises of other significant liberties.
The idea: That public authorities have an affirmative obligation to protect the expression of unpopular and even disgusting viewpoints even, and especially if, they might ignite violent reactions, and when those violent reactions were taking place.
You might think that this is longstanding Constitutional principle, policy, and practice on the federal, state, and local levels, but that’s not so. And the result is nothing less than an invitation to mob rule that thankfully hasn’t been taken up often during American history, but seems all too tempting nowadays.
I first became aware of the problem when my senior year history class focused for a while on civil liberties and we read about a 1949 Supreme Court case called Terminiello v. City of Chicago. The question at hand was whether local authorities could prosecute a speaker expressing views in a public place to that created “a condition of unrest, or…a disturbance.”
Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas, a staunch defender of civil liberties, argued that the Chicago speaker, a suspended and indeed horrifically bigoted Catholic priest named Arthur Terminiello, and others like him, were entitled under the First Amendment to voice opinions even which (in the words of the presiding local judge) “stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance.”
The Douglas opinion, in my view, was especially valuable because it held that no one – either private citizens outraged for whatever reason, morally legitimate or not, or government at any level – could censor, otherwise prevent during the fact, or punish the expression of any view belonging in the category of Constitutionally protected speech. As a result, the majority wound up expanding that realm of protected speech.
Unfortunately, this legal standard only lasted for some two years. In a 1951 case called Feiner v. New York, the Supreme Court ruled that, as described in this summary, “The First Amendment permits the government to take action against speech when there is a clear and present danger that it will cause a disturbance of the peace.”
In the 1969 case Brandenberg v. Ohio (about two years before my high school class), the Justices seemed to narrow the grounds for suppressing speech that created this kind of “clear and present danger” (a broader category of circumstances that could justify curbing speech and other forms of expression) to speech likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”
But it was only in 1977 that a truly decisive blow seems to have been struck against what I consider a blaming the victim approach when the Court ruled that government couldn’t prevent the expression of most repugnant ideas for fear of threatening public order before the fact either. The case was called National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, and upheld an Illinois Supreme Court decision that prevented a heavily Jewish municipality from preventing a demonstration by a group of (as the name makes clear) Nazis. udeupheld the defended
All the same, the group of questions I wound up asking in high school about Terminiello remains unanswered. Specifically, if hateful ideas like Terminiello’s are Constitutionally protected speech, didn’t government’s First Amendment obligations logically extend further than affirming his right to express them amid the threat or use of violence? Wasn’t government Constitutionally obliged to make sure that such expression actually take place – for example, responding to threats of violent responses by declaring that such actions themselves would be prosecuted, and following through? Wouldn’t failing to require these protective actions too often threaten to turn the act of expressing protected speech into a test of physical courage, and thereby convince too many who hold unpopular views to hold back?
Which brings us to the tragic killing last weekend in Portland, Oregon of right-wing protester Aaron Danielson amid a spate of violence that resulted from the entry into the city’s downtown of a motor vehicle caravan carrying many individuals of this ilk.
The caravan has been widely described as needlessy provocative, but the grounds seem shaky at best. According to some Mainstream Media accounts, the vehicles “descended on the city and sparked confrontations with Black Lives Matter counterprotesters.” But this phrasing raises more questions than answers. For example, what exactly about the caravan’s trip “sparked confrontations”? Were the opening clashes completely simultaneous? If not, who acted first?
One answer – and revealingly, from the now-conspicuously woke New York Times – is that “As the vehicles displaying Trump flags and signs enter downtown Portland, protesters [gathered] along the street to confront the caravan and in some cases block its route.” I’ve yet to see any accounts blaming the caravan-ers for starting the clashes.
The caravans could legitimately be blamed for knowingly, and even illegally, inflaming an already volatile situation. But no Portland or Oregon officials have declared that the act of driving through downtown itself was illegal, or even constituted a permit-less protest. Certainly, the city’s police had no plans to stop it.
And why would they? Since when has transiting a public thoroughfare not explicitly declared off-limits by the authorities been “provocative,” much less of dubious legality? Which is where the Terminiello point comes in.
The authorities in Portland knew beforehand that the caravan would take place. Their “goal” was to restrict their route to surrounding Interstates – and away from that downtown core. But what the heck is that about? They were afraid of confrontations? If so, didn’t they have an affirmative obligation to make sure that this event could take place safely? In fact, why wasn’t protection offered in advance? And P.S.: These questions pertain whether the caravan was considered by the police to be a protest, or simply an attempt to visit a public place. Finally, regarding the right to access public spaces like downtown Portland for lawful reasons – which seems like a pretty foundational civil right – why in the first place has the area’s government permitted these blocks to become a dangerous near-combat zone for months and even longer?
Of course, decisions about most effectively allocating available resources in a given situation allocation – which need to be left up to the authorities – will always prevent police or other law enforcement agencies from protecting every exercise of Constitutionally protected freedoms adequately. The challenge, moreover, is especially great in these fraught times. At the same time, what better argument could be made for more, rather than fewer, law enforcement assets?
More important, though, the notions that travel through a public street as such, whether simply expressing an agenda or not, amounts to a provocation that is somehow illegal or even improper, and that government has no duty actively to safeguard it, should be completely unacceptable to everyone who values free expression. Because if legitimate authority doesn’t make sure that threats or acts of violence don’t shut down free speech and the exercise of similar rights, you can be certain that the mob – or mobs – will quickly take notice.