Ari Armstrong, Civil Liberties, Exclusives, Free Speech

Armstrong: Defend your opponents’ right to speak

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is how Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarized the views of Voltaire. These days, far too many people instead adopt the attitude, “Free speech for me but not for thee.” This is a huge problem. To adapt the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., speech violations anywhere threaten free speech everywhere.

The people who intentionally disrupted the lawful, officially permitted pro-police Denver rally on July 19 badly trampled the freedom of speech of those ralliers. This is true whether or not you like or agree with with members of the pro-police group.

The Denver Party for Socialism and Liberation (sic) explicitly intended to “shut down” the pro-police rally, and it succeeded. The group encouraged people to bring airhorns, bullhorns, whistles, drums, pots, and pans to drown out the speech of the pro-police ralliers. Worse, some of the disrupters violently assaulted pro-police ralliers, as State Representative Patrick Neville, Michelle Malkin, Steffan Tubbs, and Jimmy Sengenberger (among others) reported.

Obviously, physically assaulting people to prevent them from speaking (or from hearing a speaker) violates the victims’ rights to freedom of speech. This point should not be controversial. Every decent person condemns violent attacks on people seeking to share a message. (Notably, this is also why I was horrified, during the George Floyd protests, to see video of police in Denver and elsewhere fire non-lethal projectiles and chemical agents at peaceful protesters as well as at journalists.)

Even if no one in the anti-police group had initiated physical violence, just the fact that members of the group intentionally and effectively drowned out the pro-police ralliers’ message constitutes a violation of those ralliers’ rights to freedom of speech. If you make it so that someone else cannot speak, when that person has a right to do so, you are in the wrong. And police properly protect people’s rights of speech.

Now I am going to get into some details of other cases and some nuance to try to better draw the line between free speech and the violation of it. But none of what I say below alters the conclusions above: the anti-police group clearly was in the wrong, morally and legally, in trampling the speech rights of the pro-police ralliers. With that context established, let’s try to navigate the murkier waters.

The basic problem here is determining when one person talking over another person is an instance of the first person’s freedom of speech or a violation of the second person’s freedom of speech.

We all recognize in the context of residential areas that one person’s expression can violate another person’s rights. If you blare your stereo in your back yard or have an extremely loud party late at night, such that you disrupt your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their property, your neighbors properly can complain to the authorities, and those authorities properly can shut down your noise. In this case, your neighbors’ property rights supersede your freedom of expression. Just as your right to swing your fist ends where another person’s nose begins, so your right to emit disruptive sounds ends (at least in certain contexts) where another person’s ears begin.

In the case of a talk on private property, the organizers of the event properly set policy for the event. If, during a private talk, you shout out to the speaker, “You’re an idiot,” the organizers may, if they wish, remove you from the event or tell you to pipe down on pain of removal.

Things get trickier on public property. When a private group rents an indoor space owned by a government entity, the rules should be the same as for private property. The group may restrict who enters and may kick people out.

Using outdoor public property for a public rally or protest—the pro-police rally was planned for Civic Center Park—creates a different dynamic. If you hold a public rally on public property, you are, by definition, inviting in the public. At that point you can’t realistically stop people from heckling your speakers. The way I see things, the organizers of such rallies must tolerate, up to a point, counter-protesters raising a ruckus. If you don’t want to deal with that, don’t hold your rally at an outdoor public venue. (There are contexts where an outdoor public venue can be temporarily fenced off, making it more like an indoor public venue with controlled access.)

To take a concrete example, I think neo-Nazis, as disgusting as they are, have every right to hold a rally or march and that police have a responsibility to protect their rights. This is not just a hypothetical matter: “In 1978, the ACLU took a controversial stand for free speech by defending a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie.” By doing this, the ACLU took the right to freedom of speech seriously. At the same time, other people who hate Nazis have every right to counter-protest.

The difference is whether counter-protesters allow the original ralliers to express themselves. In the case at hand, the pro-police group planned to have speakers, and they were denied this right. It would have been one thing if the anti-police group had shouted from the sidelines or even heckled the speakers while mingling with the group. But what the anti-police group did, by design, was shout down the pro-police ralliers and harass them out of the area. Although we can debate where properly to draw the line, clearly the anti-police group stepped far onto the wrong side of the line.

We can look to a couple of historical examples to try to get a better handle on the relevant principles. Nearly two decades ago, in the political aftermath of the horrific 1999 Columbine High School murders, a group called the Tyranny Response Team (TRT) organized boisterous protests to counter politicians and organizations pushing for more gun control. I was an enthusiastic participant in a number of these events. (I was more radical back in the day. Incidentally, several of the gun-control measures we opposed eventually were passed into law.)

I remember hearing explicit discussions among the group’s leaders of which activities were appropriate and which weren’t. For example, at one event, where the TRT gathered on public property outside a hotel where (I believe) then-governor Bill Owens was speaking, the hotel asked the TRT to quiet down, and we did.

Unfortunately, the group sometimes crossed the line. A May 31, 2001 editorial by the Rocky Mountain News castigated TRT members as “louts on the protest line.” The editorial quoted a letter to the paper saying that some members of the TRT “were screaming out insults at the Million Mom March” and “used bullhorns to shout in people’s ears as they came and left the rally.” Such behavior definitely landed on the wrong side of the line. (I criticized that behavior at the time, and the editorial actually quoted some of my criticism.)

This is a good case to consider because it helps us universalize our principles. Imagine a group you support holding a rally and a group you oppose disrupting it, then imagine the reverse. Of course, we need to separate out what we condemn merely as rude from what we condemn as a violation of others’ rights. What we judge as rude might very well depend on the group in question, but what we judge as a violation of rights should hold regardless of the group in question.

Jump forward in time a few years to 2006. That year, Amendment 44 was on the ballot to legalize possession of marijuana. That measure failed, but the similar Amendment 64 passed in 2012. I leaned libertarian, so I supported the right to consume marijuana just as I supported the right to bear arms. On October 27, Governor Owens and various law-enforcement officials held a media conference to condemn the measure, while the group Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) counter-protested. As John Suthers (then attorney general) took the microphone, members of SAFER chanted, “You say drink, we say no, hey hey, ho ho.” I attended the event, partly to support SAFER and partly to write about it. (Unfortunately, I took my archives offline to reformat my web page and have not yet republished them.)

According to an October 28 editorial by the Rocky Mountain News, Owens said, “In my almost three decades of public service, I have never seen a time when people with a permit for the west steps of the Capitol couldn’t be heard. These people in green shirts remind me of their predecessors in brown shirts.” The editorial accused SAFER of waging “a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

In this case, I think Owens and the editorial exaggerated a bit. The speakers were amplified, and they were able to finish their presentation. (I have audio files of the even that hopefully I’ll republish at some point.) Even the editorial grants that Suthers’s “voice was nearly buried in the din.” By contrast, the voices of the speakers at the pro-police rally were entirely silenced. Still, I think that SAFER came perilously close to the line and may have stepped a toe or two over it.

My experiences can serve as an object lesson for others. I recognize how easily like-minded people in a crowd can whip themselves into a self-righteous fervor. When “we” “know” that the other group is filled with immoral bastards, it can be very hard to remember that those “others” are human beings, too, who, at a minimum, have the right to freedom of speech. Often our commonality with those “others” gets shoved aside by inter-group antagonism. Interestingly, in the case of the pro-police rally, one participant told the Denver Post that she favors police reforms even as she recognizes the need for police.

I’ve long consciously recognized rights to property, free association, and free speech, yet I’ve had to step back and ask myself whether I could defend my actions or the actions of others in a group of which I considered myself a member. That kind of self-reflection is as difficult as it is needed.

The much deeper problem comes when members of one group do not recognize, even in principle, that their political opponents have the right to freedom of speech. These days we often hear loud proclamations that certain people have no right to speak. This trend is extraordinarily dangerous. As human beings, one of our basic choices is to deal with others either by force or by persuasion. If we hope to live in a society in which people peacefully coexist, we must defend people’s right to freedom of speech, for our friends and especially for our foes.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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