Free Speech & Personal Freedom – Your rights end where my rights begin.

One of my favorite high school teachers used to say “Your rights end where my nose begins.” At 16 I didn’t quite appreciate the depth of that statement, but I found myself recalling it, not for the first time since Ms. Fitzer said it, after the events in Charlottesville VA this last weekend. In her own way, Ms. Fitzer and her business law class at Piedmont OK helped put me on the path for the person and lawyer I am today, passionate about civil rights and protecting an individual’s right to express their views regardless of whether I agree with the opinion.

Before I moved to the small town of Piedmont, Oklahoma at age 15, I lived in St. Louis.  I grew up in an area known as North County which is the same  area of St. Louis County where Ferguson, Mo is located.  Ferguson was in the world news a few years ago when a white police officer shot Michael Brown after a convenience store robbery. This shooting seemed to be a tipping point in race relations and police interaction.

Where I lived in St. Louis was one of the older suburbs of the city, where the families started moving post World War II to escape city life.  I lived in an older home built in the early 50’s and my school and neighborhoods were very blue collar.  Where I lived in North County there was a fairly even mix of white and black kids, with a few kids of other races or nationalities and we all got along.  We had your typical school hierarchy of kids but it was not based on the color of skin or the notion that one of us was better than the other due our race. But this has changed in the last 25 years and in this area society has developed a feeling of black vs. white. This saddens me.

I never really thought about racism much until I transferred to a school in West County for my Freshman year of high school.  St. Louis was still under desegregation orders at that time in the 90’s and kids from the inner city were bussed into the predominately white schools in West County and South County to ensure integration was occurring.  West County and South County were what I heard people refer to as “white flight” areas.  That was another term I didn’t understand for a while.   Basically I now understand it to mean that at that time, as families, predominately black and other minority families, began to move out of the city and into the suburbs in the quest for home ownership and better schools for their children, more affluent white families were moving to other more exclusive areas of the city where the price of real estate was higher and the schools were better.   I attended high school for approximately 6 months in West County and it was my first real look at racism up close as there was a distinct difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ at that school.

But ironically it was the least diverse school that I ever attended, that really started making me think about the line of demarcation between my rights and the rights of someone else. I’m not known as a woman who keeps her thoughts and opinions to herself. I like to discuss topics that are tough and controversial.  I like to learn why people hold certain beliefs and what makes them tick.  In having this discussion I had to learn though to respect the rights of others to have differing opinions than mine.  I had to learn to be willing to listen to why they felt a certain way and to explain why I believed the way that I did.  I had to learn how to be persuasive in my thinking and argument in a way to respect that my right to my opinion ended where their right to their own opinion began.

The US Constitution gives us the freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.  However, it doesn’t give us the right to impose our beliefs on someone else.  The Constitution guarantees that we have a right to protest and state our views about the state of society or the law, those rights are not unlimited.  The government has the right to restrict our constitutionally protected rights bases on the time, place and manner in which the right is being exercised.  In regard to speech the lower the value of the speech, the easier it is for the government to regulate or restrict.  For example speech that would be deemed to be “obscenity” or “fighting word” is subject to more governmental control than say high valued speech like political speech which the government must have a compelling  interest to regulate.  The time place and manner restrictions must be content neutral, be narrowly drawn, serve a significant government interest, and leave open alternative channels of communication. I cannot walk into a crowded theater and yell “fire” because it endangers others. You can protest but you can’t protest by setting things on fire or using violence. You can print whatever you want in the paper and distribute it, but if its untrue then your subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.

So what does all of that mean for what happened in Charlottesville?  Well regardless of whether we agree their speech, the alt-right supporters had a right to gather and protest on Saturday.  They had a right to peacefully assemble and protest the movement of the statue of Robert E. Lee. They had a right to say that removing it was an attempt to revise history.  They even have a right to engage in hate speech even if their speech arguably violates the civil rights of other people under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  They did not have a right to run people down with cars. They did not have a right to threaten violence.  They did not have a right to incite violence.

Likewise the protesters who showed up to demonstrate against the alt-right supporters have the same rights of speech and assembly. They have a right to say that the beliefs constitute Nazi propaganda, support the suppression of women and minorities and that the statue supports historical racism.  They did not have a right to incite violence either.

Clothing, including your accessories and appearance is also a form of speech.  Going to a demonstration that protests the removal of a statue carrying guns and torches, while wearing swastikas, riot gear and the presidential campaign slogan makes a statement without words. It makes a statement that they are prepared to support their speech with violence and that they feel they have the support of those in power. It appears to be an incitement to violence. The alt-right supporters rights to protest the removal of the statue ended where the rights of the counter-protesters began and vice versa.

The anti-hate protesters had the right to say your beliefs are the same kind that  caused world war II or that there is no data to prove that one race is superior to another. The anti-hate supporters also had a right to reasonable self-defense when they felt threatened. Unfortunately its hard to know where the line is between speech, inciting one to violence and self-defense from real or perceived violence before a car comes plowing through a group of protesters.

At some point the speech & protest evolved into violence.  I wasn’t there I can’t say who  threw the first proverbial punch or what one event set it over the line from peaceful protest to violent riot.  Both sides have a constitutional right to have their speech heard and to make their protest whether I agree with it or not.  Part of the issue we face now is that we have the benefit of viewing the world with post-World War II glasses. We wonder how someone like Hitler ever came to power to enact the atrocities that he did. This is beneficial because we are always on the look out to prevent that kind of atrocity from happening again. But its also a hindrance because its easy to escalate to violence and suppress speech when it disagrees with our own opinion and views on these subjects.

At the end of the day, I think Nelson Mandela summoned up our freedom best when he said “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  In our polarized world we have to find a way to get along. To get past hate and differences and enhance each other.

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