The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States ensures freedom of religion, speech, and the press, but it goes on to include the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In the iconic college community of Charlottesville last week, freedom of speech and the right to assemble were exercised by many, but the “peaceably” part was left out. One woman was killed, and more than a dozen injured, when a young man, identified as a neo-Nazi, purposely drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians.
Governor Terry McAuliffe, his usually jovial face tightened by controlled rage, said that hatemongers are not welcome in the Commonwealth. Other leaders, like Mr. Trump and Prince William Board Chairman Corey Stewart, were less incensed, blaming the violent outcome on “all sides” (Trump) and “left-wing nut cases” (Stewart). The comments by the latter two men miss the point: hate never is acceptable, and must be condemned, not skirted by platitudes. Mr. Trump had sterner words about hate groups two days after the fact, but the lag time was unexplained, and unacceptable.
The Constitution protects speech; however, it doesn’t include a grammar lesson about what words to use, or how to style one’s commentary. When hateful words and ideas are not condemned, loudly and immediately, by elected leaders and others in leadership positions, the haters utilize that First Amendment as their right to spew the hateful message of the day, or week, or month. They may have the right, but they are, simply put, flat-out wrong.
Protesting government positions or policies, in an effort to change them, is a time-honored American tradition. The memorable women’s protest marches across the country, that began on the day following Mr. Trump’s inauguration, sadly, have resulted in derision via tweet and doubling down by the White House, giving neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups energy and encouragement. Will those questionable “Make America Great Again” ball caps now say “Make America Hate Again?”
A constituent once asked me, in a meeting about a proposal for a Vietnamese temple that he opposed, “Is this what I fought for in Vietnam?” My response was very simple and direct: “Yes, religious freedom is one of the things you fought for.” Millions of military service personnel have taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies foreign and domestic.” We usually know who our foreign enemies are, but do we know who our domestic enemies are? Sadly, as Charlottesville learned last week, haters can show up anywhere, and then hide behind the First Amendment, and deny that their actions incited violence. Hate speech isn’t free speech, and we must condemn it everywhere – in the public arena, as well as private living rooms. Silence encourages complicity. Call it what it is — hate. All of us must speak out against it — now and always.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.