Free speech continues to be an issue that cripples not only our colleges and universities but also our nation, and further creates agitation among people from both sides of the battle. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists were angered by the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and thus prompted them to host a demonstration, but in response, counterprotesters gathered around with signs in their hands, saying “Smash White Supremacy” and “Virginia is for lovers, not racists.” The entire event spiraled downward when James Fields, Jr., a Nazi sympathizer, drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, which left one dead and many others injured. This tragedy sparked an outrage, and people are wondering whether hate groups should even have a platform to speak. However, that doesn’t mean that what happened during that rally justifies silencing others who hold differing views, especially when they were peaceful when expressing them. This sentiment applies to the Boston rally that was held a week after.
The Boston Free Speech group, which is in no way connected to the white supremacist rally organizers in Charlottesville, hosted a rally at the Boston Commons in light of the recent attacks on the First Amendment, but the announcement has been met with concerns, and a counterprotest was immediately organized for that same day. Mayor Marty Walsh told the free speech group that, “We don’t want you in Boston. We don’t want you on Boston Common. We don’t want you spewing the hate that we saw yesterday, and the loss of life.” Because of what had happened in Charlottesville, it is understandable that the mayor would be skittish, however, he seems to have forgotten that all speech and expression are protected under the First Amendment.
Before the Boston rally began, people were concerned that, like the Charlottesville demonstration, there could be a violent eruption, which for the most part was peaceful. But, we must remember that everyone, including those we disagree with, have the right to peaceful assembly, and that right is protected under the First Amendment. As an official ACLU statement, “The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment.” Thus, Boston Free Speech’s right to host a rally cannot be encroached because of what might or might not happen, and this also applies to the counterprotesters. If there were to be an outburst that puts others in danger, authorities would step in to decimate the situation like they did in Charlottesville, since acts of violence are not protected speech.
A different approach is needed when handling free speech. Instead of using coercion to silence others, we need to practice toleration. Let’s take the example of Daryl Davis, an accomplished black musician, who understood this well when he befriended Roger Kelly, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. After years of friendship, Davis convinced him to leave the Klan, and as one can see, no authority changed Kelly’s mind on the race issue. Civil discourse does change minds, and Davis sets an example for all free speech proponents. We ought to be like him, in the sense that we respect others and listen to what they have to say and share our views with them, because force won’t solve the divide.
We need to remind ourselves that regardless of what had happened during the rallies, using coercion in fear that violence might break out is not effective––it just further fuels hate and warps people’s minds into thinking that it is okay to inhibit people’s constitutional right to speak. By allowing people to voluntarily and peacefully engage in a free flow of ideas, we can create a positive change that we want to see in this world and move our society forward without losing progress like we did during those rallies. Remember, it’s the exchange of thoughts and opinions––not force––that promotes a free, peaceful society.