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How Noah Berlatsky and CNN Got Free Speech Wrong

In a recent editorial, CNN’s Noah Berlatsky got several things wrong about the extension of free speech rights to proclaimed racists and bigots.

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Francis Folz | United States

In a recent CNN opinion piece, author Noah Berlatsky contended that “protecting Nazi speech doesn’t protect free speech” and concluded that a Nazi salute by a group of teenagers endangers the speech and lives of all non-Nazis. Although I credit Mr. Berlatsky for his laudable zeal and well-expressed opinion, his article is laced with multiple fallacies regarding free speech that must be confronted.

Firstly, our Bill of (Human) Rights are not, and should remain, non-negotiable, and that includes the first, second, and fourth amendments. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the belief that safeguarding controversial speech, which inadvertently protects less contentious or innocuous speech, to free speech ‘purists’.

Need I remind anyone it was less than 54 years ago that countless Civil Rights demonstrators were savagely attacked for merely utilizing their freedom of speech, expression, and assembly by law enforcement and firefighters on their solemn march to Montgomery from Selma.

It is for similar reasons that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I wonder if Mr. Berlatsky disagrees.

Mr. Berlatsky proceeds, “Defending the speech of white kids doesn’t necessarily protect… marginalized people.”

To some extent, he’s right. Defending those kids doesn’t necessarily guarantee everybody’s speech of every demographic is going to be protected every time in the future. However, it does set a precedent favoring free speech compared to censorship, which should be a commonly held interest.

Mr. Berlatsky’s most startling, misguided premise about freedom of expression is whenever he discusses “giving free speech to fascists” and how organizations and judges need to balance ambiguous ‘interests’. Mr. Berlatsky blatantly misunderstands that our rights are not given to each other by society, rather they are innate, endowed to us by our Creator.

We don’t ‘give’ each other the human right to privacy, just like we don’t ‘give’ each other the 14th Amendment right to birthright citizenship. All of our rights are intrinsic to our humanity, inseparable from our existence, and deserving of our unwavering defense.

At some point in his article, I questioned if Mr. Berlatsky is aware of the equal protection clause since his attempts to justify censorship tend to fall apart when applied to groups outside of fascists. In regards to the Charlottesville rally in 2017, Berlatsky suggests that since white supremacists used their freedom to ‘terrorize’ people and one individual killed one person and injured nearly 20 others, that is cause to deny every individual within the group their human rights.

Using Mr. Berlatsky’s logic, shouldn’t all members of Antifa have their constitutional rights suspended? After all, when a Hillary Clinton supporter in Portland refused to surrender an American flag to the domestic terrorist group, Antifa members cracked his head open. And that’s only one example of their repeated malice. Shouldn’t their hatred be enough to disband the violent, left-wing faction?

What if you applied Mr. Berlatsky’s logic to religious fanatics instead of ideological extremists? Wouldn’t the tragedy of September 11th be enough to deny every American Muslim the freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly because of the actions of 19 men?

After all, haven’t Islamic extremists terrorized multiple nations and killed thousands of people throughout the globe in the last two decades? Any reasonable person would not punish a group of people for the actions of its individual members but would advocate for equal protection under the law, foils to Mr. Berlatsky’s arguments.

Next, Mr. Berlatsky makes the case that the Wisconsin school district should’ve reprimanded the students for their inappropriate picture that appears to show them performing a Nazi salute, despite being off-campus and unaffiliated with the school district at the time of the photo. In an attempt to buttress his argument, Mr. Berlatsky reports that a school suspended 20 students for a tweet that falsely accused a female teacher of flirting with students, justifying the suppression of expression.

The problem is that the Salem students were guilty of libel and accused a staff member of coquetting with her pupils, a criminal offense. The only crime the Wisconsin teens committed was taking a reprehensible picture, making the situation incomparable.

Mr. Berlatsky’s final argument centers around discipline and race. According to the Government Accountability Office, Black students, in 2014, were 15.5 percent of the U.S. student populace, yet accounted for almost 39% of suspensions. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the disproportion to schools inevitably using their disciplinary authority against ‘marginalized students’ at the expense of others.

However, American schools are extremely localized, meaning parents and administrators have the final say on countless decisions, from electronics to dress codes to disciplinary policies. Regrettably, American schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the 1960s.

So in other words, the black students who are subjected to disproportionate suspensions are largely attending non-white majority schools which choose to chastise their students at a rate that is, apparently, acceptable with school personnel and parents.

Free speech is under siege like never before in American history. I hate bigotry. I detest fascism. However, I appreciate our collective, human right to speech and expression, even if I disapprove of somebody’s opinions and/or actions.

Today, the groups whom people loathe most are nazism and fascism. Nazism, by definition, is national socialism. Socialism is just a few steps away from communism. Communism has left over 100 million people dead in 100 years. What would people think if you could no longer raise your fist in public because of it’s communist insignia?

We are better as a society for the ability to openly express all of our ideas, even ones we don’t concur with, rather than only tribal-mentality approved perspectives, regardless of ideology. If detestable, bigoted opinions are allowed to be expressed in the open, it allows society to weed out the most reprehensible of ideas. It is best we don’t take for granted the ability to communicate freely and openly with each other, as anything less is a form of authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny.


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