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Commentary: Fight hate with speech, not with censorship

by Jonathan Zimmerman, Chicago Tribune (TNS) | May 24, 2022 at 3:45 a.m.

The man accused of killing 10 African Americans at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket was virulently antisemitic as well as a racist. Indeed, he blamed Jews for the so-called "great replacement" -- a belief based on a racist conspiracy theory that nonwhite people are being used to replace white people.

"Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had," Payton Gendron wrote in an online manifesto posted before the attack. "They must be called out and killed."

You can see the same types of screeds in the hateful digital footprint of the white supremacist who allegedly murdered 11 people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. Ditto for the 2019 shooter at a synagogue in Poway, California, who wrote that Jews were responsible for the "genocide" of "white Europeans."

I'm a Jew, so you might guess that I support renewed calls to penalize hate speech in the wake of the Buffalo massacre. But you'd be wrong. I'm also a historian, so I know that censorship -- however well-intentioned -- doesn't end well. We need to raise our voices against hate, but we must never prevent anyone else from speaking up.

That's what Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown demanded, as his city grieved for the victims allegedly gunned down by a racist. "The social media companies need to be held accountable," Brown said. "We cannot allow hate speech and hateful manifestos to go out over social media. It's not free speech. It's un-American, it's not the American way."

Representing the family of Ruth Whitfield, an 86-year-old grandmother who was killed in the attack, attorney Benjamin Crump insisted that pundits and politicians who spread racist theories were "accomplices" to the rampage. Most notably, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz have both warned about the same "great replacement" that apparently motivated Gendron. "Even though they may not have pulled the trigger, they did load the gun," Crump said.

Finally, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to pressure social media platforms to monitor -- and remove -- hate speech. "Someone needs to watch this and shut it down the second it appears," said Hochul, a Buffalo native. "Hate speech is not protected."

Actually, it is. I understand Hochul's anger and frustration at this awful moment. But all speech is protected in the United States, so long as it doesn't pose an immediate and tangible threat to someone else. That's the real American way, or at least it should be.

And if you think otherwise, consider the case of Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson. After leading a protest in response to the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, a Black father of five in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mckesson was sued by a police officer who was injured during the demonstration.

Nobody alleges that Mckesson knew or colluded with the unknown assailant, who threw an object at the officer that left him with injuries to his jaw and brain. But a federal appeals court ruled that Mckesson "'knew or should have known' that the demonstration would turn violent," which allowed the lawsuit against him to proceed.

Or, using Crump's words, Mckesson should have known that the gun was loaded. According to such a perspective, it doesn't matter if Mckesson pulled the trigger or not. His words and actions led to violence, so he should be held accountable.

Similarly, law enforcement officials in Portsmouth, Virginia, slapped felony charges on an African American state legislator and several Black civil rights leaders after a 2020 demonstration against police brutality and Confederate statues. One protester was seriously injured when a statue was pulled down and fell on him.

"Several individuals conspired and organized to destroy the monument as well as summon hundreds of people to join the felonious acts," the city's police chief said. Again, there was no allegation that they directly harmed the injured protester. But their words sparked violence -- and that made them accomplices to it?

That's nonsense. Of course, I'm not equating the demands for justice by African American demonstrators to the hateful drivel of Gendron. But once you decide that some speech is too dangerous to be aired, other speech will be barred on the same grounds.

Say the names of the Buffalo victims. Shout them from the hilltops, and the rafters, and the streets. Challenge racism and antisemitism, wherever you see them. But if you say there are things we can't say, watch out! Someday soon, the censors will be coming for you.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools," which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

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