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HAGER: Limiting freedom of speech would restrict us all

• Aug 24, 2017 at 2:00 PM

In our small town, we bickered and fought and went to court over the display of a cross on public property. Some felt that removal of the cross was just another stroke of the whip in the war against Christians; others felt that it left out those who don’t identify as Christians.

I personally had no opinion. I didn’t really care one way or the other what happened to a piece of wood on the hill, but I sort of leaned toward taking it down for many reasons; mostly because I believe that religious displays shouldn’t be displayed on public property.

I wrote last month about smaller issues in our small towns being reflective of larger issues in the world, and the scene that unfolded a few weeks ago in Virginia is another example of that. I’ve been the unwise participant in social medial threads, I’ve watched the news and prayed for clergy I know who were there. I felt the sudden ripping, nowhere near as painful as that of Heather Heyer’s mother, just a small shadow of what it would be to lose a child. I’ve tried and tried to understand how it can be meaningful to wave a flag that represents a failed ideology, that represents the side that lost — and I just can’t figure it out.

And yet, I believe strongly that the First Amendment must be protected, even in the face of white supremacy and terrible, sometimes even evil, ideas.

Martin Niemoller wrote about how they came for the socialists and the Jews, how he didn’t speak out, and then they came for him. And this is the idea that backs up my belief that a white man can wave a Nazi flag and talk to reporters about an “ethnic cleansing.” If we make it illegal to speak this way, where does the restriction of the law end? When does it also become illegal to say that Black Lives Matter? When does it become illegal to say Love Wins? Or Jesus Saves? Or we need health care? Or we need jobs that pay a living wage and affordable housing?

No, I believe that limiting the freedom of any speech will, in the end, restrict us all.

I can be sickened and saddened by what happened in Charlottesville and, at the same time, believe that by preserving the right of speech I abhor I am also preserving my own right to speak out against it, or to speak out against systems that are broken and hold people down.

I’ve watched a lot of different views on what happened in Virginia, and the one that struck me was one that was produced by Vice, which is a news channel on HBO. Vice had beautiful footage of the rally, the way the sun sank low as the tiki torches (really, tiki torches, whose idea was that?) some of the marchers had were lit up against the dark. Vice captured the masks of anger and hatred as those men marched through the streets chanting, “blood and soil.”

“Blood and soil” was part of Hitler’s leadership of the Nazi party (you know, that one that killed millions of people?), and it means identifying with a glorious historic past. It means Make America Great Again in some circles. It means extreme nationalism and racism. It means believing that the white race is superior. It is absolutely disgusting to me, and yet I must defend the right to speak this way if I am to defend my own right to speak.

We can’t shut down speech we disagree with, we can’t outlaw the Nazi flag (though several European countries did). We can’t do those things because when we silence one group we silence everyone. It’s a slippery slope. It relies on a government mostly elected in a “who has the most money” game, rather than an attitude of service, to regulate what we can and cannot say.

Thanks to the First Amendment, I can say that hate speech will not be tolerated by me, I can attend and organize peaceable assemblies, I can lay out for you the fact that the Nazi party didn’t win and neither did the South because their ideas didn’t grow humanity but attempted to cleanse it and make it white. I can wonder out loud why in the world folks would think it’s OK to leave people out, to threaten their lives with ideas of ethnic cleansing.

I just spent a few minutes outside chatting with a woman named Mary. She was watering flowers, and I wanted to know where she’d gotten a sign in her yard. We spent a minute being neighbors, figuring out who we have in common in this small burg.

Neighbors are what we need more of because then we can build a community that, thanks to the right to free speech, can shout down those who would proclaim “blood and soil” as they seek to intimidate and exclude.

And we don’t actually have to shout — that’s the magical thing. We just have to show up, speak up, open our homes and our minds. We just have to walk in the belief that neighbors matter — their actual personhood, not their color and religion — and that love matters, too.

The white nationalists can shout into the empty air, as we build a bigger table and get more plates and invite everyone to the table of our common humanity; because we are free to do so.

— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist

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