The year of 2017 saw a huge swell in public protests stemming from racial unrest and displeasure with systemic injustices targeted at certain groups of people. Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the grassroots activist group Black Lives Matter has staged public protests, marches, and social media campaigns designed to bring awareness to the plight of people of color against law enforcement and the criminal justice system. On the other end of the spectrum, though, white nationalists and white supremacists have also taken to the streets with torches to protest the immigration policies they view as lax and the perceived vilification of white and caucasian Americans. Each group independently caught pushback from both the media and their communities, who bemoaned the damage to public property and the need for increased crowd control and first responders.
These two forces came to a head in Charlottesville, when a clash between a white nationalist group and a combination of Antifa (anti-facist) and Black Lives Matter protesters ended in fist-fights, property damage and destruction, arson, and the death of a young white woman.
Sympathizers of both Black Lives Matter and White Nationalism have accused the other side of hurling “hate speech” and inciting race-based violence against the other. Both claim the other uses inflammatory verbiage, divisive rhetoric, and skewed-if-not-wholly false information to debase the other and forward their own agenda. To that end, speakers or activists considered too political on one side or another have been barred from speaking on various college campuses. While the administrators of these institutions of higher learning tend to call on “security concerns” when prohibiting “extremists” from either side from speaking on campuses, many believe that these higher ed institutions are sheltering their students and suppressing certain viewpoints in violation of the first amendment.
Calls to “stop hate speech” on both sides have reinvigorated first amendment fanatics who are nervous about how far we’ll be able to limit free speech in the name of reducing violence. The first amendment as it’s written prohibits the US government from passing laws that infringe on the people’s right to free speech. We have made some important caveats, though, the classic example being that a person can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater to purposefully incite panic. We also prohibit organizing terrorist threats against the US.
While we can’t legally stop people from saying what they want, the administrators of some of the biggest social media websites can claim that it’s against their terms of service to post racially insensitive or discriminatory information or to actively champion such causes as ethnic cleansing or white supremacy. Unlike the government, social media platforms are private businesses who can set terms and conditions under which they will permit users to utilize their services. Twitter and various white nationalist groups have been caught up in a cat-and-mouse game over how to ensure that twitter’s crawlers catch white nationalists and only white nationalists, but their algorithm isn’t great, and their terms aren’t clear.
The future of free speech as it pertains to potentially offensive and inflammatory information is yet to be determined, but as our society proves more and more divided, we’ll have to come to a new truce sooner rather than later to avoid more deadly clashes.