On Monday, October 30th, the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University presented “The Shadow of Charlottesville: Free Speech at a Crossroads,” a panel discussion on the events that transpired on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Moderated by Sanford J. Ungar, Director of the Free Speech Project, the panel discussion sought to explore the violent nature of the protests that erupted in Charlottesville and the complex nature of free speech, given the current contemporary social and political landscape of our nation.
The panelists included Timothy Longo (Former Chief of Police, City of Charlottesville, Virginia), DeRay McKesson (Civil Rights Activist and Host, Pod Save The People), Arthur Spitzer (Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, DC), and Paula Xinis (Judge, US District Court for the District of Maryland).
The event began with a harrowing depiction of the scene that unfolded at the Unite the Right rally as featured in a Vice News documentary. White nationalists armed with tiki torches and comments by members of the Unite the Right rally certainly stirred the audience and provided the context for the discussion that ensued.
The video evoked an immediate response from the panelists, who were each asked to begin by articulating their reactions.
Former Chief of Police, Timothy Longo described watching the events in Charlottesville unfold “like sitting on the sidelines.” He acknowledged that Charlottesville has a history of racism and that significant progress has been made in the regard, both by the city and the police force. Perhaps most striking was his conviction that it will take the Charlottesville community “decades to recover” from this event. It has never been more important, Longo emphasized, for the city to come together in the wake of the violent events of August 12th.
The conversation then turned toward Arthur Spitzer, the Legal Director of the ACLU, who immediately vocalized his defense of the “Unite the Right” demonstrators’ constitutional right to assemble, to protest, and above all, to protected speech. In fact, Spitzer argued that the onus fell on the police force to maintain civility among the demonstrators, and the violence that erupted was in large part due to a failure on the Charlottesville police to control the situation. To defend his statement, Spitzer offered the example of the Ku Klux Klan march on Washington, DC in which the police were integral in ensuring a non-violent demonstration. Above all, he highlighted that Charlottesville could not legally prevent the “Unite the Right” protest.
Spitzer’s staunch defense of the “Unite the Right” demonstrators was starkly juxtaposed by Deray McKesson, a Civil Rights Activist, who fiercely opposed their right to protest, in light of the violence that erupted.
Most notably, he pointed to a “clear, uneven distribution of power” between the “Unite the Right” protesters and the counter protesters, as evidenced by their “stockpiles of weapons, tiki torches.” Deray contended that had Black Lives Matter conducted such a protest, the response by authorities would have been drastically different, alluding to a double standard. Race is inextricably linked to the way law enforcement handles protests and “we would be remiss not to name that racial distinction when talking about Charlottesville.”
Judge Paula Xinis, US District Court Judge for the District of Maryland, grounded the discussion in a legal analysis of the protesters’ right to assemble. She contended that US District Court Judge Glen Conrad’s decision to grant an injunction to allow the Unite the Right rally to be held in Emancipation Park was sound given the evidence brought forth before him. Insofar as there was no clear public safety concern evident to Judge Conrad and that the information McKensson alluded to was not present, the Unite the Right rally was guaranteed the right to demonstrate.
The discussion culminated in an evaluation of our country’s contemporary application of the First Amendment, and what specifically constitutes protected speech.
On the one hand, Spitzer of the ACLU, argued that any effort to articulate one’s views, even if those views happen to result in the execution of a violent action, are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Spitzer places his confidence in the marketplace of ideas which will condemn more radical views over time and prevent them from gaining traction. However, as a country whose founding principle is the protection of free speech, we cannot inhibit the proliferation of views because they run contrary to our own.
Similarly, Judge Xinis, posited that in order to protect our most closely held beliefs we must also allow for those extreme beliefs to have a platform of their own. At the same time, there exists a fine line between words and actions. Once words become actions, then it becomes necessary to discuss incitement and its constitutional implications with regard to protected speech.
Former Chief of Police Longo, echoed this sentiment in an apt quote from former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” While we may disagree or even hate the speech espoused by white nationalists, it is imperative they are afforded an equal opportunity to convey their opinions.
In turn, it is our responsibility as citizens, to evaluate the merits of their speech and respond accordingly.
Finally, Mckesson stressed the importance of recognizing the links between historical white nationalism and contemporary examples, such as the Unite the Right rally. Insofar as Unite the Right demonstrators believe in an institution that has led to violence, their speech ought not to be protected.
All in all, The Shadow of Charlottesville: Free Speech at a Crossroads offered much needed clarity to the often-convoluted discussion of free speech in America.