On Aug. 11–12, white nationalists and other right–wing groups hosted the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which escalated chaotically. Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others were injured after rally attendee James Alex Fields Jr. drove his Dodge into a group of civilians.
The next Saturday, the right–wing “Free Speech Rally,” held in Boston Common, was disbanded early after thousands of counter–protesters flooded the site, chanting anti–Nazi and anti–KKK slogans such as “Hey hey, ho ho. White supremacy has got to go,” according NPR and The Washington Post.
There was a fear of violence breaking out. Boston police “waded into the crowd at times before the march began to confiscate sticks and poles that were used to hold placards,” according to Philip Martin, reporter from WGBH, a local Boston TV station.
According to The Washington Post, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said that there were 27 arrests, mostly for disorderly conduct, but no officers or protesters were injured and there was no property damage. However, the Boston Police Department did confirm that there were rocks being thrown at the officers.
Then, on Aug. 27, right–wing protesters organized the “No to Marxism in America” rally in the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park at Berkeley, California. In response, a group of 2,000 people coordinated a “Rally Against Hate” as a counter–protest.
However, several self–identified anarchists and antifa (anti–fascists) attacked Trump supporters, leading to 13 arrests on various charges, including “assault with a deadly weapon, obstructing a police officer and various Berkeley municipal code violations,” according to Berkeley policeman Lt. Joe Okies.
These events have raised national concerns over limits to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, has attracted controversy for defending the Charlottesville protesters’ right to hold the rally.
Waldo Jaquith, a member of the Virginia ACLU board, publicly resigned from the organization on Twitter, adding to the heated debate about legality and morality in the 2017 political context.
“I just resigned from the ACLU of Virginia board,” said Jacquith. “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis.”
Recurring debate about the extent of First Amendment rights for fringe groups such as white supremacists has been an issue for the ACLU since it gained notoriety for defending the right of neo–Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1978.
“The [ACLU’s] defense of the Charlottesville rally has crystallized a recurring challenge for the organization: how to pursue its First Amendment advocacy, even for hate–based groups, without alienating its supporters,” said Joseph Goldstein, reporter for The New York Times.
The question over the First Amendment and freedom of speech is still hotly debated. Constitution Day is a national holiday on Sept. 17 that celebrates and recognizes the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment of the Constitution states that Congress cannot make laws barring the right to freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly.
“The need to fight neo–Nazism and white supremacy wherever it appears is compelling,” said Glenn Greenwald, co–founding editor and columnist of The Intercept. “The least effective tactic is to try to empower the state to suppress the expression of their views.”