When I taught about the First Amendment’s Free Speech protections, I would sometimes ask students to differentiate between a person pontificating that “Someone should lead a revolt against the government,” and a person at the head of an angry crowd moving toward a government official and yelling “We’re coming for you.”
The first of those is protected speech–it’s the utterance of an opinion. We might dislike the opinion, we might find it infuriating (much like burning a flag, which is the expression of a similar opinion), but it is an opinion, and protected by the First Amendment. The second, however, is a threat. To the extent that words constitute a credible threat, they are not within the protection of the First Amendment. Granted, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between an angry exhortation and a genuine threat, but legally, they are different.
A recent article in the New York Times considered the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on the nation’s campuses, and drew that distinction.
Free speech, open debate and heterodox views lie at the core of academic life. They are fundamental to educating future leaders to think and act morally. The reality on some college campuses today is the opposite: open intimidation of Jewish students. Mob harassment must not be confused with free speech.
Fareed Zakaria made much the same point in an essay in The Week.
I have strongly condemned the attacks of Oct. 7. I think that those who praise Hamas in any way are blind to the reality that it has been the principal opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. But the question to grapple with is how to handle views that either side finds deeply offensive. And of course, speech and assembly are not the same as physical intimidation and harassment, which prevent civil discourse…
The basic argument for free speech… is that it is better to hear those you violently disagree with than to ban or silence them. That way, debate happens out in the open and points are matched with counterpoints. The alternative is to drive discourse into the shadows and gutters of political life where it festers, turns into conspiracy theories, and often erupts into violence.
David French –a noted expert on the First Amendment–underlined the point that– just as there are international rules that apply to shooting wars, there are constitutional rules that apply to our nation’s culture wars. As he explained, “applying those rules properly is one way that a continent-size, multi-faith, multicultural society peacefully perseveres through profound division.”
Our civilization is intended to be a rights-based liberal democracy, where people who possess diametrically opposed points of view cannot just survive but also thrive without compromising their most fundamental beliefs — so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others.
As French reminds his readers, freedom of speech includes freedom to be offensive and provocative–even freedom to advocate violence, but not to “incite or produce” lawless action.
Under this construct, public support for Hamas — or public support for carpet bombing Gaza — is constitutionally protected, even if it’s gross and immoral, and public institutions that suppress such speech violate the First Amendment….
The right to speak does not include a right to silence others. Putting up a poster is an act of protected speech. Tearing down that poster is not, even if the person destroying the poster is trying to make his or her own statement. Tearing down a poster is akin to shouting down a public speaker. Your protest cannot trump the speaker’s own right to free speech. The answer to a poster is another poster, not destroying the expression you hate, by tearing it down or defacing it any way…
The right to speak does not include a right to harass. This last concept is perhaps the most difficult to understand and apply consistently. The right to speak, as I said, absolutely includes a right to offend. The government cannot silence your speech simply because it makes people angry or upset…
This is a strict standard but certainly one that applies to threats and to acts of physical intimidation. If anti-harassment laws mean anything, they mean that students shouldn’t have to fear for their safety from fellow students simply because of their race, color or national origin.
The prohibition of harassment includes actions prompted by antisemitism and Islamophobia that “detract from the victims’ educational experience.”
I strongly recommend clicking through and reading French’s essay in its entirety, because it is an excellent primer on the constitutional interpretation and critical importance of America’s Free Speech doctrine.
Bottom line: In America, people with defensible points of view express them through speech, not through vandalism, intimidation or thuggery.