On Sept. 17th, universities across the nation will be celebrating Constitution Day, which commemorates the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, 230 years ago. In How Democratic is the American Constitution Political Scientist Robert Dahl argues that we should demythologize the Constitution suggesting that we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss its shortcomings in order to find ways to improve it.
In the spirit of Robert Dahl, a discussion on the First Amendment centered on the events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia this summer is in order. While driving home from Saskatchewan, Canada I was stunned to learn that hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members had marched to “take America back” clashing violently with counter-protesters as seen in this HBO Vice News video. These white supremacists marched through the streets armed with guns, torches, Klan shields, and the idea that they were, as one white nationalist stated in a Washington Post article, there to “stand up for the white race.”
The use of torches and Klan shields have a long, deeply disturbing, and well understood meaning in this country. In How Race is Made in America, Natalia Molina refers to images such as the ones employed by these white supremacists marchers as racial scripts. Racial scripts are racial messages used time and again throughout American history in ways that can be reused and understood for
new rounds of dehumanization and demonization in the next generation or even the next debate” or in this case, the next march (Molina 2014, p. 7).
The only thing missing from the marchers were the white robes and hoods.
Yet, the event was initially given the green light because of the sweeping protection of freedom of expression in the First Amendment. Few, if any other, countries allow for the exercise of hate speech by a minority such as the kind displayed in Charlottesville.
The racial scripts conjured up in this march were clear; but in this case, the First Amendment right to free speech went beyond the expression of ideas—repulsive as they were—and resulted in dozens of injuries, the death of two police officers from a helicopter crash, and the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant with a law firm in Virginia after being intentionally struck by a white nationalist with his vehicle.
The First Amendment idea of free speech is obviously a good one. Indeed, the argument for it is sound. Expression is protected, even when stupid, hateful, and meant to be disturbing. Otherwise, the powers in charge start choosing who can speak and who cannot.
However, one must ask if some speech, indeed hate speech of this violence-threatening kind, goes too far, particularly during a time of the rise of hate groups and hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center both have been on the rise since 2000 and are directly linked to: (1) demographic predictions that whites will be a minority by 2040, (2) the election of Barack Obama, and (3) the election of Donald Trump in reaction to our first African American President. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups operating in the country in 2016 remained at near-historic highs, rising from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year, close to the all time high of 1,018 in 2011. In this context, clearly a conversation about the parameters of free speech is needed.
In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, one must ask the important question:
How can we combat growing white supremacy, within the context of our broad freedom of speech expression rights found in the First Amendment?
Each of us must think long and hard about this question, and in the spirit of Dahl, find ways to make the constitution more democratic for all. Because the kind of hate and violence that took place in Charlottesville should not be protected by the Constitution.