A Reminder From Russia of How Precious Free Speech Is

On Friday, the Russian government blocked access to Twitter, Facebook and multiple news sites, in an effort to stop people from speaking out against the war in Ukraine. The state also shut down the pillars of the country’s independent media, including the radio station Echo of Moscow that was launched by Soviet dissidents in 1990. And on Friday, the Duma passed a law punishing anyone who spreads “false information” about the Russian military, which could include anyone calling what is taking place in Ukraine a “war,” with a possible 15 years in prison.

These efforts reminded me of something that happened in my hometown, Cincinnati, three decades ago, when I first thought about what speech — and keeping it free — meant.

During the ’90s, when I was a kid, the city had a Christmas season tradition of sorts. The Ku Klux Klan would erect — or attempt to erect — a 10-foot plain wooden cross on Fountain Square downtown. This (non-burning) cross bore the Bible verse John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” — and was put up in response to a menorah raised by a local synagogue. It was an effort to, as one Klansman put in 1993, “put Christ back into Christmas.”

Every time, the group’s effort would result in chaos that no one in Cincinnati — with the possible exception of the Klan — wanted.

In 1990, for example, hundreds of protesters attacked six robed members of the Klan with rocks and tin cans (including a two-pound can of sliced pineapple). The group was holding a rally next to the cross, guarded by helmeted police officers. One protester told an Associated Press reporter, “It’s a damn shame the city’s protecting them.” In 1992, the cross stood for four hours before being pulled down by an unidentified man.

In 1993, the city tried to stop the Klan from erecting the cross. In a lawsuit, it argued that the cross itself and the words on it represented “fighting words” and were thus not protected by the First Amendment. The “fighting words” doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1942 stipulated that the “words” in question must “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” by their “very utterance.”

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio responded in a preliminary injunction that the cross and the Bible verse could stand because neither fulfilled the “fighting words” requirement. As Judge Carl Rubin wrote in his final ruling on the matter in 1994, “It is a well-settled principle of First Amendment law that the government cannot regulate speech simply because some may find it offensive.” The raising of the cross and the ensuing controversies continued.

Of course, most Cincinnatians didn’t find the Bible verse or the cross itself offensive. They found the Klan, the most infamous domestic terror organization in American history, offensive. As Judge Rubin wrote, “The City stresses that the sponsor of the display, the Ku Klux Klan, has historically used the cross to frighten, intimidate and denigrate certain citizens.” And the protesters worried that by permitting that cross, they were empowering the Klan, breathing life and power into an organization responsible for violence going back more than a century.

I thought of these perennial eruptions again during a conversation I had with my colleagues Jay Caspian Kang and Michelle Goldberg for an upcoming episode of the podcast I host, “The Argument.” Jay mentioned that when he was growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Klan would occasionally march through the center of town, and his teacher would tell the class that the group had every right to do so and that the best response was to pay them as little attention as possible. The Klan would get their march, but they wouldn’t get the attention they so desired.

Jay told us that he felt like something had changed in the liberal approach to free speech since he was a kid — as if the unquestioned sanctity of it was now up for question. Liberals once defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill. Now some had reservations about defending “hate speech” or anti-vaxxers or white nationalist activists that wax rhapsodic about the Holocaust and seem to think another one would be a fine idea.

As we all know, it is extremely easy to defend speech we like and speakers we support and harder to stand up for the speech we despise or the speakers who would have us cast out of the public square (or far worse). It feels pretty unnerving to defend the rights of people whose ideas are so wrong and who could end up in positions of power. After all, a year after a few Klansmen raised a cross in Cincinnati, a former Klan grand wizard, David Duke, reached a runoff election for governor of Louisiana and won nearly 40 percent of the vote. And the Covid misinformation on Joe Rogan’s podcast came in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans.

And of course, many people seemingly intentionally misunderstand the concept of free speech, arguing that they should be permitted to say whatever they want without opprobrium but that their ideological or cultural opponents should be forbidden from doing so — speech for me, not for thee.

I tend to think that the reason that some people on the American right have previously voiced support for Vladimir Putin is because, in their view, he would act as a bulwark against some speech: he would protect their speech while restricting the words that scare them the most, speech on L.G.B.T.Q. rights or the speech of religious minorities. If no one ever heard the speech of lesbians or bisexual people or transgender people, they seem to reason, no one would be a lesbian, or bisexual or transgender.

The people whose speech I have the hardest time wanting to protect are the people who would very much like to see me in jail or dead simply for the terrifying crime of being a bisexual, biracial woman. The neo-Nazis and white nationalists I used to cover at Vox.com and the attendees at a recent white nationalist conference that attracted two sitting members of Congress are all committed to limiting the rights of the people they deem inferior. Why should I need to stand up for theirs, particularly if doing so could help them gain more power?

Well, as the rabbi who fought to put a menorah on Fountain Square told The Associated Press in response to the Klan cross, “If we want to play the American game, this is the price we pay for democracy.” And personally, I agree.

Permitted by a court of law to speak freely, the Klansmen did not strike fear into the hearts of Cincinnatians. They looked like idiots, their speech rendered inert and inept.

That’s the beauty of freeing even the worst speech: Sometimes it can shoot itself in the foot. The speech that offends me the most often represents ideas that are the most easily contested by basic facts, or gentle questioning.

So bring on the speech and the confidence to respond to it, challenge it or mock it out of hand. That’s the confidence the Russian government doesn’t have. And that’s the confidence we must re-establish within ourselves.

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