Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

In October, 2017 white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an uninvited speech in my adopted state of Florida on the campus of the University of Florida. As happened at the Charlottesville, Virginia event where Spencer spoke, white supremacists engaged in violence. While this time shots were fired at those protesting the white supremacists, no one was hurt. Three suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder. As might be suspected, there have been efforts to keep Spencer from speaking. Spencer and his lawyers, however, have been able to successfully appeal to the First Amendment in their lawsuits. While the lawyers and courts will settle the legal aspects of this matter, there is also the moral aspect of free speech.

As a matter of principled consistency, I always apply Mill’s principle of harm when it comes to rights and liberty. The basic idea is that the collective has no right to restrict the liberty of an individual expect when the actions of the individual would cause harm to others. Sorting out all the details of any specific application can be challenging, but the basic idea is simple enough and is justified by Mill’s moral theory of utilitarianism. This is, of course, the view that the morality of an action depends on the value it creates for the morally relevant beings. Roughly put, an action is good when it creates more positive value for negative value (for those that matter morally).

As recent white supremacist rallies have shown, allowing white supremacists to express their views in public tends to create considerable harm. In the case of Charlottesville, a person was killed and others badly injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. As noted above, Spencer speaking in Florida lead to three white supremacists being arrested for attempted murder. While I normally disagree with Florida Governor Rick Scott, he was right to declare a state of emergency in Florida and prepare for violence. The University of Florida also decided to step up its security, spending $600,000 of public money. Because allowing such events to take place has resulted in death, injury and attempted murder, the principle of harm would seem to justify denying white supremacists the right to engage in public speaking. The fact that dealing with likely violence costs large sums of public money also supports this conclusion: while speech should be free, those whose speech costs the public such large sums should not be permitted to engage in the sort of events that require such security expenditures.

It can be objected that restricting white supremacists would be unfair. After all, other controversial speakers have drawn violent elements. To be consistent, the principle would need to be applied consistently: if a speaker is likely to draw followers/supporters that engage in violence, then the speaker would need to provide funding for adequate security to protect the community. If they cannot ensure the safety of others, then the right to not be hurt or killed (the right to life) of the people likely to be affected trumps the speaker’s right to free speech. The use of public money also brings in property rights, which can also trump free speech rights.

This, of course, leads to an obvious concern: speakers can draw “followers/supporters” that they do not want nor endorse. For example, a conservative speaker might attract white supremacists who support him, but he does not want their support or presence. On the left, a speaker might attract violent anarchist “supporters” who engage in violence and vandalism. It would be unfair to restrict freedom of speech because a person happens to have bad “supporters.” The challenge is to sort out cases in which a person is drawing “supporters” they do not want and cases in which they are pulling true supporters. In some cases, this will be rather difficult, while in others it will be easy. For example, Spencer’s remarks indicate the sort of people he wants as supporters and these are the sort of people who have engaged in violence.

It must be noted that restricting speakers because they might offend members of the audience or make them uncomfortable would be unjustified. While people do not like being offended or upset, these are not strong enough harms to a person to warrant restricting a basic right such as free expression. That said, a speaker who engages in threats can cross over into real harm by making people legitimately fear that they are in danger. While people like Spencer speak of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, white supremacy is, by its very nature, a threat to everyone who is not perceived by the supremacists as white. As such, it is reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that any white supremacist speaker’s speech on the matter is a threat and thus a harm that warrants restriction. To use an analogy, if a person wants to speak in favor of molesting children or committing murder, it is reasonable to regard them as a threat and to not allow them to express such views.

While the burden of proof rests on the white supremacist, they could make the case that their views are not a threat of harm against others. If this case can be made, then they should be free to express their views. Naturally, the same principle should apply consistently. For example, if a speaker wanted to speak for black supremacy and urge the “peaceful” cleansing of whites, then the same principle would apply. But, supremacy of any stripe seems to be a threat of violence against everyone else.


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