I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in freedom of assembly. It’s an important part of liberalism that unpopular, obnoxious, and noxious views are allowed to be expressed and heard and that people who share them are allowed to gather together. Among the classic reasons given for this position are that it promotes individual liberty; it allows citizens to consider and dismiss failed and unjust viewpoints; and, in turn, it reinforces successful and just viewpoints. That’s the political theory.
However, I also applaud the protestors who are risking their safety by going to Donald Trump rallies and, yes, even causing some of them to be shut down.
How do I square that?
While it might be tempting for a liberal such as myself to simply see action against Trump as self-justifying, I think it’s important to articulate how rights should be exercised, and while die-hard Trump supporters might be unpersuaded, there are many other people who might have similar concerns and be open to justifications.
The answer is basically this: Because freedom of speech does not mean that you are completely free from the consequences of your speech.
The U.S. and its people allow an incredible amount and range of free speech. Take a look around the world, and you’ll quickly get a sense of how tolerant, lenient, and forgiving of a people we are.
But some speech simply breaches the limit that Americans are willing to tolerate. They then exercise their right to free speech and assembly to rise up in opposition. The citizens who are protesting Trump’s racist, xenophobic, violence-inciting speech are doing precisely that. This is how our system wrestles with extremes. I abhor the violence that’s taken place in these events. I especially regret that police officers have gotten hurt. But in other countries, these issues would be settled through the barrel of a gun. I’d trade our chaos for open war any day.
By the way, Donald Trump seems to understand very well that there are consequences to speech. After all, he routinely threatens to sue people who criticize him. And he even wants to “open up” well-established law regarding the freedom of speech and the press. Sometimes the consequences of Trump’s speech come in forms that don’t work in his favor.