Violent Charlottesville Rally Ignites Free Speech Debate

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The violent Charlottesville protests have sparked a discussion among government leaders and on social media about our nation’s First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment is pretty short, containing just 45 words. Its history, however, is much longer.

It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

KOLR10 Political Analyst Brian Calfano explains – it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

“It’s a fine line and it’s a bit confusing,” Calfano said.

So how much hate speech is covered by free speech? The short answer: all of it. Calfano tells KOLR10 the longer answer.

“The courts have generally said, that’s protected speech, even if the signs are saying offensive things.”

Of course, groups targeted by hateful signs, like Bill Simmons, who generally supports free speech, might not agree with the courts.

“I think when it’s borderline hate, racist, that’s when it crosses the line,” Simmons said.

Calfano says it all comes down to the details.

“You have to come up with a scenario whereby you’re saying something so obscene and offensive to an individual, that any reasonable person would expect that’s going to incite some type of physical violence,” he said.

For Simmons, the neo-Nazi chants at the Charlottesville rally and presence of the Ku Klux Klan was enough to expect just that.

“The intention there was to incite some type of riot, some type of violence,” Simmons said.

Calfano counters his point, “Trying to predict what’s going to incite a violent action or not is pretty much impossible.”

A glaring misconception about free speech, is that it’s protected in the same ways online. The reality is, nearly anyone can retaliate against unwanted social media attention, be it your boss, family or friends.

“They can disown you, they can fire you, they can shun you,” Calfano said.

The only group that can’t retaliate is the government.

The Bill of Rights has come a long way since its creation in the late 1700’s. As the U.S. responds to events like what happened in Charlottesville, the meaning of the First Amendment changes simultaneously.

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