The recent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, began with a protest by white nationalists over the planned removal of Confederate statues. They had a permit for their initial demonstration.
No matter how offensive their message of white male supremacy and neo-Nazi views were to many, they were within their rights, civil rights attorney Charles Coleman Jr. said.
“Under the Constitution and the First Amendment, there’s no distinction between what’s hateful speech and what’s loving speech, if you will,” he said.
The demonstration turned deadly when a white supremacist sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens of others.
“If speech is going to incite violence, that’s when you’ve crossed the line of it being illegal,” Coleman said. “You can’t advocate openly for violence against any particular group or person. That’s when you start going into the realm of what’s illegal speech.”
The white nationalists who displayed the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery, were within their legal rights as private individuals. But the symbol still has a role in public institutions and government. It is part of the Mississippi state flag. Civil rights attorney Carlos Moore of the Tucker Moore Law Group is fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to have it removed.
“I do believe that the state or government actors should not be allowed to display images that celebrate slavery or advocate white supremacy,” Moore said. “I believe that crosses the line and that’s unacceptable.”
Coleman said he believes Charlottesville is not an isolated incident.
“Our ground has been fertilized to have this happen all over the country if we’re not careful,” he said.
So, can a distinction be made between free speech and hate speech? And if hate speech leads directly to violence, should it be banned? Street Soldiers host Lisa Evers poses those questions and more to a distinguished panel of contributors.
What do you think? Comment in the space below.
LISA EVERS, host of Street Soldiers
EVAN BERNSTEIN, New York regional director, Anti-Defamation League
CHARLES COLEMAN JR., civil rights attorney
FRED THE GODSON, hip hop artist
CARLOS MOORE, civil rights attorney