Erika D. Smith

‘Free speech,’ the most overused, misused phrase in American politics

Controversial Breitbart editor talks to UC Davis crowd and 'recreates' pepper-spraying

Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos returned to the UC Davis campus Saturday for a rally, after a heated protest prompted organizers to cancel his speaking engagement Friday night.
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Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos returned to the UC Davis campus Saturday for a rally, after a heated protest prompted organizers to cancel his speaking engagement Friday night.

It was about halfway through the last Sacramento City Council meeting when an agitated James Lee Clark, known in activist circles as Faygo, approached the podium to exercise his First Amendment rights.


Like dozens of others in the room, he had come to complain about a plan to limit where in the city panhandlers can beg for money and another, far more troubling plan that would’ve banned picketing near the homes of elected officials. Both, he insisted, amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to silence people.

Faygo, I should note, is not a lawyer.

“You want to say that one form of free speech, the picketing is the only part you care about, but the free speech of those just trying to live doesn’t count for you?” he yelled before storming off. The council members stared back blankly.

What Faygo said stuck with me, though, as did the actions of some of his fellow activists who, one by one, got kicked out of the meeting for exercising their “free speech rights” by interrupting, shouting down and cursing at council members.

For better or worse, “free speech” seems to be the all-purpose grievance du jour, whether it makes sense or not.

And after Charlottesville, Va., where the nasty rhetoric of white supremacists escalated into deadly violence last weekend, igniting a national debate about the protections for hate speech under the First Amendment, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In fact, I think the phrase is about to become the most overused and misused phrase in American politics, even as it serves as an excuse to turn public discourse into shouting matches and brawls.

Just watch. The right and the left are already staking out their positions.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, in a shameless defense of a morally bankrupt President Donald Trump, lobbed an early blow last Tuesday, asserting: “The top priority of the left right now is the rollback of free speech for you and me.” Right.

Carlson was probably channeling ousted White House strategist Steve Bannon or Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally-turned-riot who outrageously argued: “The denial of First Amendment rights … led to the political violence that we saw.”

Most Americans know that’s a crock cooked up by racists emboldened by Trump. Unfortunately, it’s a crock that has caught on.

Upon hearing that the University of Florida, like Texas A&M, had denied his request to speak on campus, white nationalist Richard Spencer fumed to The Associated Press. “Such a brazen attack on free speech from a public university is infuriating.” He vowed to sue.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union is wrestling with the implications of free speech.

It was the ACLU, that bulwark of leftist values, that went to court to fight for white supremacists to rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville in the first place. Now with a woman, Heather Heyer, dead as a result, there has been pressure from inside and outside the nonprofit’s ranks to rethink that strategy.

On Thursday, the ACLU said it would no longer represent white supremacist groups that carry guns. Its California chapters also released a statement saying “white supremacist violence is not free speech.”

Meanwhile, cities all over the country are being forced to decide whether to allow white supremacists to hold a “Free Speech Rally.” Boston said yes. San Francisco and many other cities said no. Expect lawsuits.

There is, of course, no moral equivalency between activists yelling at the Sacramento City Council so homeless people can panhandle and white supremacists shouting about how “Jews won’t replace” them. But under the law, morality isn’t supposed to matter. Free speech is free speech.

The challenge is in interpreting that law. Should public officials shut down people, whether marching in groups or speaking alone at public meetings, who just seem to want to start a fight? How about groups of people who have zero moral high ground, like white supremacists? What about people who just want attention or pity? And should extra consideration be given to people who are willing to work with government to change public policy or have been historically left out of public conversation?

Free speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment sounds straightforward, but the circumstances under which it plays out can often be messy.

I don’t like being shouted down. I don’t think it’s the way to be effective in influencing public policy. But I defend their right to do that,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg told me. “What I do worry about is civility and decorum in our public life. I do believe we owe it to each other to listen to each other and be respectful.”

Some might call that quaint in an era of world leaders fighting on Twitter. And for activists, sometimes patiently following the rules isn’t the best way to get things done. The life-and-death debate over police brutality comes to mind.

But I would say Steinberg also has good reason to worry about the quality of our public discourse. For at the same City Council meeting where Clark spoke, a massive protest erupted after Shane Brinton, a former mayor of Arcata, was thrown out for yelling and jabbing a finger at Councilman Steve Hansen.

Steinberg summoned security to escort Brinton to the door, and Brinton earned gasps and applause as he spat: “When I was a mayor, I knew how to run a meeting!”

Soon protesters piped up outside, rolling a tower of bullhorns propped on a wheelchair from the middle of the plaza outside City Hall to just outside the window of the council chamber. Then they started shouting. The mayor turned red. Council members shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“I know that our security is going to address the disruption from outside,” Steinberg started, and was promptly interrupted by a man shouting, “The people are rising!”

Steinberg banged on the dais.

“Anyone who interrupts from the audience, I’m going to remove because part of democracy is listening to other people in a council chamber. Everyone has a chance to speak,” he said, clearly trying to control his temper. He pointed outside. “That’s not decorum! That’s not democracy! That is attempted anarchy. And it’s not what we do here in the chamber!”

(OK, it wasn’t quite “anarchy.”)

Free speech is a right, but words matter. And delivery matters, too. Increasingly.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith