In October 2006, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a rally in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, that was an embarrassment to those of us who hate racism. The Klan and their supporters outside their "free speech" pen outnumbered anti-racists by about 2 to 1. The KKK also received security and even rides to their rally from the National Park Service. Protesters who came out to speak against the Klan were harrassed by the authorities, and many left afraid of what might happen and disgusted that there were so many racists who would come out to support an organization that has used fearful violence to shut up people, especially people of color.
The reason I am writing about this event now is that I found myself talking about it on Kurt Repanshek's blog on the national parks, where he wrote about controversy regarding a developer possibly breaking the law over bulldozing part of Harper's Ferry National Historic Park. In responding to that, I found myself talking about what happened in Harper's Ferry this past October. Others have suggested that as awful as the KKK is that they have a right to free speech like everyone else.
In this essay, I am going to argue why what the KKK does is not consistent with free speech.
The principle here is that speech that at the same time is used as an act of oppression cannot be called "free speech" because the speech actually keeps others from being able to speak.
As far as the KKK goes, it's not that they are racists, that they believe in racism, that they dare to speak out racist thoughts and ideas that makes what they do so objectionable. Free Republic, for instance, is a hateful, idiotic group with oppressive ideas. I have absolutely no opposition against them using a platform in which to speak, even if I find myself opposing what they say. On the other hand, I have considered going to the Washington Convention Center this weekend to protest GlaxoSmithKline and their use of an expensive platform to speak about health because this giant corporation is one of the worst in being complicit with animal abusers. In the case of GlaxoSmithKline, they are using the megaphone and amplification their money creates in order to drown out their oppression of animals. Their speech isn't mere speech without any power behind it; it's speech that actually contributes to the oppression of those without voice.
I think the same can be said for the Klan, except in this case the issue isn't that the KKK has all this money that it spends in order to amplify its speech. Nevertheless, the KKK only uses its platform for speaking as a form of intimidation so that others who should be able to have a voice don't. Many would not come to Harper's Ferry because they were frightened by what might happen to them at a Klan rally. The white uniforms aren't mere white uniforms; they are an intentional display intended to instill fear and shut people up. They use the rally in places like Harper's Ferry not simply to bring together the faithful and assert their ideas but to put their ideas into action, creating a fearful spectacle that actually does disempower people from expressing their voice.
The way they use their speech is an aggressive use of power in order to deny voice to the oppressed. That is not consistent with free speech. Free Republic, on the other hand, only intends and actually does express hateful ideas. Their expressing those ideas does nothing to anyone except their poor, wretched souls. No one should stop them; they in fact should be pitied.
Some have said that people should be able to spend as much as they want on a political campaign and claim that that is free speech. I agree with them fully that that is speech. That, however, is contradictory to free speech, since the relative privilege of controlling the amount of speech has the effect of drowning out everyone else who doesn't have the money to spend. It disempowers others from speaking. Someone may even use those airwaves to promote justice or something we agree with, but to say that this is the same as free speech is ludicrous because the use of the speech has the tendency to disempower others from expressing themselves. In a process that purports that all votes and voices are equal, calling this free speech would be a disingenuous lie.
As much as the Klan does the same thing with the fear they intend and actually do instill through their speech (you should have seen people of color I knew outside the rally and how afraid they were - and these are hardcore activists), they should not only not be permitted to rally (and it was more than that, they were escorted, given full security, and those who opposed them who didn't have permits were harrassed by the authorities), they should be actively stopped from even trying.
In another response to this question on Kurt's blog, I said that freedom is not vacuous. If the word has any meaning at all, it only can be in the inter-connections of a community. When actions go to destroy those inter-connections, then the space where the relations of "free speech" can exist is destroyed. As a result, those actions cannot be considered consistent with free speech. Yet, like some think time and space exist in in a vacuum, some think that that is what freedom must mean. In fact, time and space arise from the relations among beings, and so too freedom, the space where action exists, only arises in a context of relationships. But, if free speech does in fact mean freedom in a vacuum, that is freedom to act no matter what aside from the relations and effects on a community, then that too should be opposed along with the Klan.
So, my distinction isn't that hateful speech shouldn't be permitted but that hateful speech used as a rod of power against others such that it prevents them from being able to have voice should never be allowed. It's why no one should be ashamed to protest restaurants that serve meat or harrass workers, protest any corporation at all that profits from another being, or on and on (it's not always the best tactic in the current reality, but it's not illegitimate). I believe that such acts are legitimate against far more than the Klan; the Klan is simply a glaring example that one would think there would be consensus around. But, as long as people confuse their pluralism with ethical vacuousness, then we won't even get consensus around that, and the happy parade of oppression will continue.
Anyhow, I hope that clarifies what I'm thinking. I wouldn't think that there should be disagreement over the principle. At most, we might disagree about whether the Klan's use of speech is actually disempowering. However, I and many others can attest firsthand that it is.
One should note also how different this is than speaking out in opposition to oppression. That speech might also be intimidating, frightening, or have the effect of shutting people up. Yet, speech which shuts up those who are actively shutting up others does not contribute to oppression. It creates a climate, if done in a way where the means and ends are consistent, where those without voice have the ability to speak out. That is why I have previously defended the use of home demonstrations. Understanding the difference between what the KKK does and what someone fighting against oppression does is very important, and incidental similarities in tactics do nothing to hide that difference.