"Kill the Nazi!" and other examples of offensive free speech

antiwarThree cheers to the Denver Rocky Mountain News (bias alert: my old newsroom) for a interesting slice-of-life color story from the front lines of the free-speech wars at the Democratic National Convention. Also, a tip of the hat on this one to the always fine Christianity Today weblog.

What if are you supposed to do if you are holding a protest against war and state-sponsored violence and somebody shows up who wants to protest violence against the unborn? In other words, should the protesters have mounted a sort-of violent counter protest against the protester who showed up, in his own way, to protest their protest? Or something like that?

Or how about this: What if the guy had been a nun who was carrying papers proving that she was both anti-war AND anti-abortion?

You get the picture.

The second deck of the headline on M.E. Sprengelmeyer’s story was perfect: “Anti-abortionist tests limits of anti-war protesters’ tolerance.” It sort of reminded me of that old saying: “There are people in the world who don’t love everybody the way that they should and I just HATE people like that.” Here is how the scrum broke out.

The incident happened as thousands were gathering in the park to loudly denounce President Bush and, for some, to criticize Democratic challenger John Kerry for voting to authorize the Iraq invasion. … As the crowds of protesters grew and grew, an uninvited guest — anti- abortion, anti-gay activist Leonard Gendron, of Boston — took up a position along a pathway, hoisting a sign showing a picture of an aborted fetus on one side. On the other side were the words “Homo sex is sin.”

To say the least, his ideology clashed with other messages in the predominantly left-leaning crowd.

The protestors were not amused.

Gendron said he was just standing up for free speech. Protesters and camera crews swarmed in. Gendron taunted the people who were taunting him. At one point, reported Sprengelmeyer, someone yelled, “Kill that Nazi.” The pushing and shoving lasted for 15 minutes. The anti-war protesters even turned on one of their own people, dragging off a man who tried to protect Gendron. Then someone really raised the stakes.

“Stop acting like the right, you folks! You’re not helping the cause!” one peace protester screamed, to no avail.

Some in the anti-war crowd finally wrestled the sign away from Gendron. He slipped out of the crowd without his sign, and his opponents quickly ripped the picture off one side and tried in vain to tear the plastic coated placard to pieces.

We can only hope that more journalists visit — with their irony software loaded and in working order — the fenced-in “Free Speech Zone” outside the FleetCenter. There are times when I really wish I had a travel budget.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    Free speech protects the anti-war protesters. Without it, citizens would have no recourse to protesting government policies. Free speech does not mean free-for-all. If the anti-abortionist gave, as the reason for his presence, that he was ‘standing up for free speech’ then he was at the wrong party. The group assembled there that day were not ‘witnessing’ for free speech, they were there to protest the war. Clearly, his motive for being there was to stir up trouble, which he succeeded in doing. He was ‘infiltrating’ that gathering, subverting it. This is a longtime practice of the right, as Michael Moore demonstrated in Fahrenheit 911 by showing us the ‘infiltration’ of a local peace group by an fbi agent. (Waste of tax payers dollars, clearly.) Anyway, I don’t think there’s any ‘irony’ in this incident, just another person with a mean self-serving motive trying to discredit and shame sincere people who are against the war. The fact that they responded with force against this man, proves nothing. They were fired up. They are not necessarily gandhian or ‘church of the brethren’ pacifists. They are against THIS PARTICULAR war. And I feel that this is a valid position to take.

  • http://www.vigilancematters.com Marty

    Karen obviously needs to upgrade to the latest version of Irony software. 3.0 is current i think…

  • http://www.tmatt.net Tmatt

    The modern left is also not as strong as the old left on the issue of protecting offensive speech. This is a major change in the landscape of American politics.

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    I think Marty doesn’t get that the protesters are not ‘peace-niks’ or there to proclaim the hallowed virtue of Peace, as so many protesters over the last several decades were. They were there to PROTEST THIS WAR! They are not protesting ‘violence’ but a particular war. If they were wearing gandhi t-shirts, it would indeed by ironic that they trashed the guy’s board and drove him out. But they were not aiming at virtuous excellence, they were just there to protest a war. Of course, you’re so right, I’m not a journalist, or even a clever witty person, so perhaps I don’t really know what the word ‘irony’ means.

  • Darrel

    Karen you are dreaming.

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    Well, you could be right. I’m a known dreamer. The thing is, that up until now, I have not been identified by anyone as a ‘leftie.’ I don’t belong to any political organizations, I’m a former theology student. On the family-values front, I’ve only been married once, for 31 years, took care of my aged parents in my home for 12 years, visited the sick and elderly in my parish, etc. People think of me as a nice lady. I’m against this war because I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam war, and how much it tore our country apart. I mean families were torn apart, neighborhoods, all sorts of communities. Everyone became classified by whether or not they were ‘for’ or ‘against’ the war. Nothing else about you mattered for a while there, and if you think that’s fun, think again. I’m afraid our country is headed in the same direction. That war caused untold heartache, and this one will too. Some people yelling ‘kill the nazi’ but merely tearing up his sign and ousting him from a demonstration he didn’t belong in, is small potatoes. Do you remember Kent State? Have you been to Iraq yet, personally? I don’t think I’m ‘dreaming,’ I think I’m having post-traumatic stress flashbacks.

  • http://onedumbbrit.blogspot.com/ Mike

    Small potatoes for a group of anti-war protesters to mob a man for having the audacity to state his own views? The intolerance of the tolerant is sometimes staggering, really it is.

    Quite how Iraq will be another Vietnam is something I can’t quite see. The Iraq situation is no longer that of war, but of occupation with the view to rebuild, Vietnam was one of war until the US was forced to pull out. People have always pigeonholed others by one thing or another, why it’s a bad thing that they take something as real and important as this to do so isn’t something that’s immediately clear. Communities and families aren’t things that just stay as-is, there’ll always be something around to test them and tear them, if it weren’t this, it’d be uncle Jerry’s drinking problem, or cousin Ike’s excessive love in certain directions, whatever.

    Of course, I wasn’t around for Vietnam, it was long before my time, so maybe I’ve missed something, but it doesn’t look like a very good comparison.

  • http://www.lolajl.net/blog/ Lola

    Karen, you’re dreaming. I guess, you should go visit the Iraqi bloggers’ sites. And there’s a blog set up to document Iraqi Holocaust. I suggest you start with http://iraqiholocaust.blogspot.com/. Then Visit http://massgraves.info/. And ask yourself whether SH should have been left to fill even more holes with Iraqis.

  • http://www.philocrites.com Philocrites

    Are you being coy, Terry? Sure, if a nun showed up to an anti-war protest, I think most people would assume that her opposition to abortion and her opposition to war were related — as the Catholic religious who have participated in other anti-war events have often made clear. During Holy Week, for example, Catholics — lay and religious — stood outside the State House here in Boston with a cross and explicitly linked their opposition to the death penalty, abortion, and the war in Iraq. If a nun had shown up with a sign about abortion at the anti-war rally on the Common, I am sure she would also have been holding a sign that said something about her opposition to war. I doubt very much, however, that her sign would have said “Homo Sex Is Sin.” That doesn’t make the most obvious of connections to Iraq; perhaps it was an oblique reference to the videos from Abu Ghraib?

    But since the Rocky Mountain News reporter didn’t write about a nun, you’re hooking this essay, which is supposed to illustrate the hypocrisy of the left about free speech, to “the Rev.” Leonard Gendron, who has nothing to say about war at all. Those of us in Boston are familiar with Gendron { http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000773.html }. Like the leftists who show up at every event to talk about Mumia Abu-Jamal, Gendron shows up pretty much everywhere to tell gay people that “God Hates You.” He charmingly expressed his convictions during the gay-marriage protests outside the Massachusetts State House with a sign reading “Homosexuals Are Possessed by Demons,” which strikes me as taking liberties with scripture. Gendron also had choice words for the Episcopalians at Gene Robinson’s consecration: “You liar. You thief. You whore. . . . You liars with your white robes and your dark hearts.”

    Maybe there is an interesting religion story some extremely enterprising reporter could write about the anti-war, anti-gay nexus — but there are not likely to be many nuns in that story. I would be the last to pretend that there’s no hypocrisy on the left, but I hope you’ll excuse me for my skepticism about the commitment of fundamentalists like Gendron to free speech.

  • http://www.ecben.net Wm. Linden

    I WAS “around for Vietnam”, and I was

    — assaulted and battered for putting up my own fliers. I suppose you will claim that I was “infiltrating” by daring to express other views because the Marxoids by definition owned the entire campus?

    — repeatedly threatned precisely FOR minding my own business (i.e., attempting to attend classes when the Marxoids ordered us not to)

    — traped in the Courant Institute when the screaming mob broke in.

    — SAW the “peaceniks” stockpile of Molotov cocktails.

    And as for 1970… for months before the “spontaneous protest of the invasion of Cambodia”, evey wall on 8th street was scrawled with “STRIKE! MAY 5TH! TAKE WHAT’S OURS!”

    Yes, I know how much they care about free speech for anyone but themselves. And the “liberals” around me STILL insist that, after I spent four years in fear of my life from the “peace” movement, “it didn’t happen, and besides you deserved it”.

  • http://fiat.cybercatholics.com Josh M.

    Maybe it helps that I’m too young to remember Vietnam. Or maybe it’s simply the realization that throughout history, it’s always taken a lot of time and effort to quell opposition once a government was taken down (see: Germany, which took 7 years).

    You fight a war to win it, and then you do what you have to do to fix things afterwards. Vietnam was never fought to win; politics and hand-wringing got in the way. I’m just plain not all that anxious about Iraq. The country will now succeed because it must, and because we’ll see to it that it does. We aren’t playing games.

    Clearly, the guy in question here went down to stir up a little trouble. But in doing so, he illustrated the hypocrisy of these people beautifully. Remember their mantra:

    “We’re the group for all views! All races! All economic classes! All religions! All sexualities!”

    And then the fine print: “But only if you support our political aims, and in no way challenge anyone else with your own beliefs.”

  • http://onedumbbrit.blogspot.com/ Mike

    Wow, yeah, I’d forgotten about Germany. I wonder how I managed that. Of course the interesting thing is that at this stage the Iraqi terrorists aren’t so much attacking the US and UK directly as they are attacking each other. Witness the mini-van bomb that killed 70 and wounded about 30, probably more. That was just yesterday or the day before. It’s not a war anymore, it’s plain chaos. But try getting the Marxist/Socialist/AntiWar people to understand that.

    On another note, Gebron’s getting flack from some people here for mixing things up in terms of relevance of message. I feel it’s only fair to let you all know that the ‘Socialist Worker’ people, that is, the marxists, over here in London, England, have joined hands with the Freedom for Palestine people. And our dear Red Ken has welcomed a man known to preach hate and encourage suicide bombs (see my blog for links).

    Will those who criticised Gebron for relevance issues have a go at this lot, too? You know, in the name of fairness and tolerance?

  • http://onedumbbrit.blogspot.com/ Mike

    *For Gebron, read Gendron, please.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    When I was doing a church-state studies degree, there was a saying that we used all the time: “A lot of people that you wouldn’t want to have dinner with have purchased your religious liberty.”

    The point? Extreme people are often at the heart of valid disputes.

    I am calling this an example of offensive free speech. The word “offensive” is there for a reason. The left used to be in favor of free speech — period. Clearly, there are now DIVISIONS on the left. That was my point.

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    Mike: I can see why you wouldn’t think it’s a good comparison, and I like your point that there’s always something to tear people apart. I’m talking specifically about politics tearing people apart, and maybe because I was a teenager during the Vietnam war it was particularly shocking to me to experience the change to a more politicized consciousness, after a period of greater unity, or the illusion of it. I think that in our own day, the abortion issue is a better comparison, because that has created deep divisions among people. I think that the difference is that in the case of Iraq, fully developed people with lives, friends, parents who have put a lot into rearing them, etcetera, are being asked to step up to the plate and die. Or be maimed, which is no small potatoes (just an expression of mine). I think everyone ought to consider how they would feel about our occupation of Iraq if they were to be called up for active duty there. It’s not enough to look on from outside, as it were. You can’t get at your own truth from there. Also, I want to say I appreciate the respectful tone you are taking towards me, by replying with a line of reasoning in response to my statements.

    As for the ‘intolerance of the tolerant,’ I think that you may be coming from a very protected environment, and haven’t experienced much physical violence first hand. There is a difference between yelling, tearing up a sign, versus beating someone up, for instance.

    Wm. Linden: I would say you are a good example of exactly the kind of victimization ordinary citizens suffered during the Vietnam era for expressing their opinions. Yes, both the right and the left were ‘bashed’ by the other side – that is my point! It was ugly. I’m not sure how the subject of Marxists came into the discussion. For example, I’m not a Marxist, and never have been, but when I’ve attended demonstration, there are socialists there – all kinds of people! I really don’t think there are many Marxists around anymore, but they may be a vocal minority.

    Anyway, demonstrators aren’t saints! Well, except for the Gandhi-types, and the Catholic nuns, the Buddhist monks, etc. We need to be tolerant, not as ‘groups’ but as people! Feelings run high. Why can’t we respect each other a little more? One might say this is just human nature to polarize like this, but aren’t we, as Christians, supposed to be transforming our human natures?

    Thanks to Philocrates for pointing out that Gendron is not an innocent angelic victim in this story, either. I thought probably not. Let’s re-read his post more carefully, as I think he’s doing a better job than I am at articulating what’s questionable about the assessment of this article.

  • Wooderson

    The strawman rears its ugly head.

    Terry stacks the deck from the get go, writing “What if are you supposed to do if you are holding a protest against war and state-sponsored violence and somebody shows up who wants to protest violence against the unborn?”.

    But, as Karen points out, the protestors weren’t necessarily pacifists or anti-violence demonstrators or opponents of “state-sponsored violence”: they were anti Iraq-war protestors.

    Let me put it this way: I can loudly proclaim that the Iraq war sucks. I can loudly proclaim that Dubya sucks. I can loudly proclaim that John Kerry sucks. This being Boston, I can loudly proclaim that the Yankees suck. But even when you stir all of these things together, add a placard and some dreadlocks, you still don’t know how I feel about violence. Maybe I think the solution is to riot. So? I haven’t said I don’t believe in rioting, all I’ve said is I don’t believe in the Iraq war.

    Sprengelmeyer’s article says only: “The protesters included a mix of peace activists, revolutionary groups and others.” We can probably assume that the Peace Activists don’t like violence much: one of them appears to lament the protestor-on-protestor violence. But the protest itself is not about violence, it’s about Iraq, and the protestors aren’t there to *make a point* about free speech, per se, they’re their to *exercise their free speech.” And you can bet that those revolutionaries (apparently such an animal still exists) haven’t pinned their strategy on pushing daisys down rifle barrels. They don’t make a claim to be tolerant, so why do we do it for them?

    As for that wingnut who decided to crash the party: I think he’s right on abortion, but he’s a goof if he, or anybody else, assumes that angry mobs in the street are particularly concerned about intellectual consistency vis-a-vis free speech and the right to protest. Those mobs might be willing to take advantage of their right to protest, but we can’t assume they’re very concerned about someone else’s.

    There might be some academic grist-for-mill in this story about the relative rights of rivaling protests. Maybe there’s a smidge of irony in that protestors probably expect not to get beaten up for protesting but don’t mind landing a few when they see something they don’t like. But that might better be handled in a paper on the psychology of a mob than a suggestive but ultimately empty comment about political rights.

    No doubt wider reporting on the incident would make a few commentators look clever. And it might make the protestors look bad to people who read too much into the story. But maybe it wasn’t reported because it was one man (!) and an attention-grabbing nutbar at that. Oh, and take a close look at the picture in the story: good optics are probably not especially high on their agenda of the protestors.

    Anybody care to guess my political leanings, my Vietnam experience, or my willingness to volunteer for a war in Iraq? Think you know enough about me to do so?

    You’re wrong.

  • http://onedumbbrit.blogspot.com/ Mike

    So, Wooderson. If I say I don’t think I know enough about you to guess at your stances, I’m wrong? O…k….

    Karen, thanks for your response, but I have to admit to being a bit disappointed in you. You thank me for my respectful tone and then make a noise about what a sheltered background I must come from. That’s not very nice, I think.

    Added to which, it does nobody any favours when someone attacks the validity of someone’s point by saying, in effect, ‘you can’t say anything about it unless you’ve experienced such-and-such’. Points and logic can stand very well regardless of experience.

  • http://www.philocrites.com Philocrites

    Mike writes: “Will those who criticised Gebron [sic] for relevance issues have a go at this lot, too? You know, in the name of fairness and tolerance?” Mike is complaining that critics of the gay-hating anti-abortion activist “minister” Leonard Gendron – critics like me – don’t also criticize the excesses of the anti-war movement.

    Since you asked, let me say that I repeatedly criticized hard-left organizations like International ANSWER during the run-up to the war with Iraq. You can take my word for it, browse through the archives at my site from December 2002 through March 2003, or read this (http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000420.html), this (http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000344.html), and this (http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000354.html).

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    Mike, I apologize, I didn’t mean to take aim at you personally. Probably I ought to have said, ‘most of US are coming from fairly sheltered environments’ when it comes to violence. BTW, I didn’t think it was very nice when you said, “The intolerance of the tolerant is sometimes staggering, really it is,” in reference to me. Care to apologize to me? That would make me feel better.

    Terry, I agree there are divisions on the left. That is one of the beautiful things about America, we are allowed to disagree with one another, to have divisions within our political parties, our churches, etc. We can dialogue with each other, learn from each other. We don’t have to face being burnt at the stake for it. Our churchly forefathers were burning each other at the stake just a few hundred years ago, which caused many of our intensely religious ancestors to come to this country in the first place, where we have the freedom to hold and express contrary opinions and political views, and belong to different churches. [I hope that my making this statement doesn't make me a 'leftie.' :-) ]

    I think the challenge for all of us in times like these, is to hold onto our intelligence, our humanity, our ability to discuss our differences, and to be the individuals we really are, not part of some mob mentality, whether of the ‘right is right’ or the ‘left is best’ variety.

    There are all sorts of good points being made on this thread for further discussion.

  • Puzzled

    Isn’t the protest cage (an affront to the 1st in my opinion) for all protesters, including those protesting the DNC, not just fellow travelers? Or was it limited by content?

  • Mary

    He was at the wrong party? I have to break it to you, he wasn’t at a party at all. He was in a park. A public location, which the anti-war protestors, even if “sincere,” did not have an exclusive right to, even if he was “mean-spirited.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Wm. Linden

    Philocrites, I am glad to hear that you criticized ANSWER. When I was being beaten up, the only criticism of the “antiwar” thugs I heard from “liberals” was a little tepid tut-tutting, not that it was wrong, but that it was (excuse me while I vomit) “counterproductive”. (“You aren’t helping the Cause”, right?) And I still keep getting sneers for trying to get lefties to even admit it happened. (Why doesn’t Clinton apologize for THAT, if he is so keen on apologies for everything but what *he* did?)

  • Marinda R


    Yes, the “protest cage” was for all protesters. The demonstrations in the article took place on the Boston Common, further from the Convention venue.

  • http://onedumbbrit.blogspot.com/ Mike

    Karen, sorry it came across like that, but the comment about the ‘intolerance of the tolerant’ wasn’t aimed anywhere near you. As Wooderson so kindly reminded us all, we don’t know nearly enough about each other on here to make those kinds of statements. No, I was talking about people I’ve met on another site designed specifically for this type of conversation (message boards, etc), people I’ve met in my own sheltered life, and, of course, those who went ballistic over Gendron.

    Philocrites, I’m happy to take your word for it.

    Can someone tell me what Puzzled means by ‘protest cage’? What’s that?

    Mary’s point about the park is a good one. Anyone can come to a public place, as the fight that broke out in my local park last night reminded me.