Over inauguration weekend, Richard Spencer found himself on the wrong end of a right hook that would make even Mike Tyson wince. Many people have been asking the question “Was it okay to punch him?” and both the right and the left have had their say on the matter. People are wondering if this is going to set a bad precedent or if every difference of opinion is going to be met with violence, and in both cases, the answer is no. To understand what all the different factors at work here are and why the answer is no, we first have to go to beginning.
Richard Spencer is the founder of the alt-right movement, a group with an ideological base that has been likened to Nazi beliefs and Ku Klux Klan ideologies. The reason the alt-right is compared to these groups is because prominent figures within the movement have asked questions like, “Is black genocide right?” and Spencer himself advocated for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
There is a fundamental difference between controversial free speech and outright dangerous and illegal free speech. Free speech’s legal limitations are noted in Schenck v. United States and Roe v. Wade. Respectively speaking, these are “inciting actions that would harm others” and “making or distributing obscene materials.” While you could theoretically argue that Spencer’s speech caused harm to himself, it is practically indisputable that the things Spencer and his movement have said are obscene and dangerous.
The fact of the matter is Spencer was not punched for liking chocolate ice cream more than vanilla or even something more serious like wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He was punched because he has promoted vile and reckless ideologies that could easily incite violence.
It is also important to note that historically the Supreme Court has ruled that “fighting words” are unprotected by the First Amendment as well. What qualifies as fighting words, then, is the next question that must be asked.
Maybe it is my faith in humanity, but any reasonable individual would feel that calls of genocide and ethnic cleansing easily qualify as breaching peace.
According to Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.” Maybe it is my faith in humanity, but any reasonable individual would feel that calls of genocide and ethnic cleansing easily qualify as breaching peace.
So, in short, it is clear that Spencer getting punched does not set a bad precedent since the precedent was already set a long time ago. Spencer’s views easily qualify as being unlawful.
People were also wondering if “all differences of opinions [are] going to be solved through violence now,” and this question is often paired with the statement, “Violence is never the answer. If you don’t like someone’s opinion, prove why it’s wrong with logic.” And that is all well and good if you are discussing things like whether or not we spend too much on the military or the federal tax system, but when someone’s opinion not only degrades but also outright calls for violence against human life, it is no longer a reasonable opinion or a reasonable person.
And before it is brought up, it took losing an entire World War and being put on trial for their war crimes for many Nazi Germans to see the error in their ways. Once someone has been corrupted like that, you could be the Clarence Darrow of the new age and still not convince them to change their mind.
Maybe you are a part of the contingency of people that believe that the alt-right is not a Neo-Nazi group. If you are a part of this group, I invite you to look at the similarities between the alt-right and the Nazi’s of the 1930s. Both groups believe in white supremacy and a white ethno-state. Both groups have leaders who have advocated for ethnic cleansing, and both groups believe in the inferiority of anyone who is not white. There is even a video of Richard Spencer shouting, “Hail Trump,” which was met by right-handed, straight-armed salutes.
If we speak allegorically for a moment and said that tomorrow a time-traveling Nazi came to give an interview in Washington DC and got punched, nobody would be upset or bat an eye.
They are not just eerily similar; the alt-right are outright copying Nazi rhetoric and mannerisms. To allow this group the benefit of the doubt would be to singlehandedly betray almost every ideal we as Americans hold dear.
I believe in freedom of speech with all of my being. It is one of the defining characteristics of our democracy. However, as I have tried to illustrate, there are both legal and moral barriers which limit the extent of that freedom.
If we speak allegorically for a moment and said that tomorrow a time-traveling Nazi came to give an interview in Washington DC and got punched, nobody would be upset or bat an eye. Why would it suddenly be not okay for someone who has strikingly similar views?
When you get down to brass tacks, punching Nazis is as American an institution as baseball and apple pie.