Police Must Act Fast to Protect First Amendment Rights, But Will They?

Free speech advocate Robert Shibley has a great piece in USA Today about the horrible violence that erupted in Charlottesville.  In his piece, he brings up a very important question: why was violence allowed to occur at all?  What were the police doing? Shibley writes:

State, local, and even college campus leadership appear to be telling police to stand by while some degree of unlawful violence takes place right before their eyes. Yet when that violence predictably spirals out of control, the authorities profess their inability to have done anything to stop it. Meanwhile, those inclined to violence are emboldened, secure in the knowledge that the publicity payoff is high and the odds of punishment low.

This must stop. Freedom of expression is what gives us the ability to hash out societal issues through argument instead of physical conflict, but it is only meaningful when people are reasonably confident that they will be physically safe while they speak and listen. When the authorities simply stand by and let political violence occur, even in the hope of the conflict somehow “de-escalating” itself, they send the message that both sides have a free hand to violently attack their opponents. This makes a mockery of the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

I agree wholeheartedly. If we are not a nation with law enforcement, we are no longer a nation of laws. If we don’t have free speech, and protection for it, then we have become a mobocracy…

Even vile, hateful speech must be protected.  As a Jew — and an accepting American — I’m no friend to neo-Nazis.  But they have the same 1st Amendment protection as everyone else in the country.  The police must protect those rights.  And they must equally protect the rights of those who show up to protest against the white supremacists.  Preventing violence should be their primary goal.  The fact that they seemed to stand down and let it happen in Charlottesville is distressing.

If the police are going to let the mobs run wild…then it’s only a matter of time until there are vigilantes on the other side.  While I hope the police will step in and step up in these situations, I’ll be surprised if they do. Why?  Police have been under siege for eight years…  and this has put them in a very difficult — if not impossible — situation.

If they act, they’ll be hated, vilified and sued.  If they don’t act, they’ll be hated, vilified and sued.

They’re paralyzed.  Just by doing their jobs, they could legally be in trouble….  And that doesn’t even account for the court of public opinion.  Even officers whose names have been cleared by courts still have their reputations ruined, their names smeared, and their lives trashed.  

Shibley is 100% correct in his piece.  The fact that the police should act to protect free speech is one issue.  Quite another is the fact that some of these activists have done nothing but undermine the authority of the police for years.  These anti-cop activists can’t scream all day long about how the police mistreat them and then act totally shocked when their inflammatory rhetoric finally has a consequence.

The chickens are coming home to roost.

Featured Image Credit: Flickr

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