July 18, 2019

Antidote for Hate? More Free Speech

July 1, 2017

Think about it. It’s always easy to defend someone’s right to say something with which we agree. But in a free society, we also have a duty to defend speech with which we strongly disagree. Contrary to popular belief, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment — hateful ideas are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.

Also frequently misunderstood in the free speech debate is that exercising free speech doesn't mean one is free from consequences. The idea that “I can say and do what I want without repercussion, because ... free speech!” is actually false.

Two recent examples of this logical fallacy include the Traverse City Police officer who flew a confederate flag at a political rally at the Open Space last fall, and the recent bigoted Facebook posts by the village president of Kalkaska. Both men cited their free speech rights in response to the public outcry that followed their actions.

In the case of Officer Michael Peters, he showed up to the “Love Trumps Hate” rally flying a Confederate flag from his pickup truck. Protesters said that he revved his engine while driving past a black family, and he also was observed drinking outside his parked vehicle during the event.

After it was discovered that Peters was an off-duty officer, the family said they didn't feel safe knowing someone who is supposed to protect their rights would fly that flag.

Peters asserted that he did so as a statement against political correctness: “There is a rapidly growing segment of the population in this country who seem to be offended by anyone who dares present anything politically incorrect to them, and normal people are growing weary of it.” He took issue with demonstrators who expressed their First Amendment rights, but he took “extreme exception” to him exercising his own.

This is where Peters misses the point. Protesters didn't challenge his right to display the racist symbol — they just don't believe that an individual who deliberately provokes others and who expresses hateful ideas has any place in their police department. 

Facing an internal investigation, Peters quickly resigned. Actions have consequences.

Now, Kalkaska community members are coming together and speaking out against a village president who they say has promoted racism and hate on social media. Jeff Sieting has posted several controversial statements — commenting “Kill Them All – Every Last One” in reference to Muslims and “Time to thin the herd of this crap” in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggesting that transgender people have a “mental illness.”

One Kalkaska resident expressed the frustration of many: “[He said] horrible things ... and to be our village president and speak for us, and act like that's how we feel? It's disgusting, and it's not okay.”

Since the controversy broke, Sieting has maintained that he's done nothing wrong. "I have a right to my opinion. If they don't like my opinion, [then] stay off of my social media page," he said. He doesn't believe that being the village president should take away his right to express those opinions. 

Again, this is where he's mistaken. The community isn't saying that he can't say what he said. They just believe that, as an elected official — a representative of the people — Sieting has crossed the line. According the Michigan Constitution, a village president is a “conservator of the peace, and may exercise within the village the power to suppress disorder.” Ironically, his statements include the exact kind of words that can lead to violence and have already caused disorder.

The public has demanded Sieting's resignation and, even if he refuses, he is unlikely to win re-election. Words have consequences.

So many people on the right promote the idea of personal responsibility but here seem to hide behind the free speech argument when their words and actions have negative personal repercussions. 

If the things you express provoke a fierce and unpleasant reaction, you should ask yourself whether your critics have a point. And if you’re in favor of free speech when it comes to some issues but not others, perhaps you should ask yourself why.

Whether you work for the government or in the private sector, you are by extension a representative of that organization. Actions and words matter. And unless you are clearly using them to parody or satirize, it is fair to expect that people will believe you mean what you say and what you do. From that point, it is up to your employer, coworkers, customers, or peers to judge your free speech and decide whether it is in conflict with their own values — especially if you are in a position of power within a given group.

According to writer Thomas Healy in his June 18 article, “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?” featured in The Atlantic, “One of the central tenets of modern First Amendment law is that the government cannot suppress speech if those harms can be thwarted by alternative means. And the alternative that judges and scholars invoke most frequently is the mechanism of counter-speech.”

So, in essence, it is our responsibility to speak out or peaceably demonstrate against hate. And the answer is more speech, not enforced silence. We should defend Peters' and Sieting's First Amendment right to express themselves, just as we should hold them accountable for what they say and do.

Christie Minervini owns Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons and is passionate about gender equality, community development, and ending homelessness.



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