‘Free Speech Absolutism’ is the 1A Debate Du Jour

First Amendment

By: Jessica Garner

Free speech. Debaters invoke it (often incorrectly and reliably via the First Amendment), particularly in online forums, as a reflexive defense against criticism. Whether the debate is complex and expansive or just plain petty, it’s almost a breath of fresh air when some aggrieved online combatant does not fall back on claims their free speech is being attacked.

Then, of course, there are the Nazis and white supremacists.

Don't Mess SeriesAfter the events at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year, some of the initial wave of protestors found real and tangible repercussions waiting on them. The New Yorker recently chronicled the nomadic digital life of The Daily Stormer after the white supremacist website lost its hosting. Repeatedly. The Daily Stormer had posted a story in the immediate aftermath of the protests, in which one woman was killed, with the headline “Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a Fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut.” GoDaddy, the hosting service of the Daily Stormer, dropped the site almost immediately. Finding a new host has been an evolving process for the website. It’s hardly the only fallout from the march for some right-wing extremists.

A man who worked in Berkeley, Cal., was fired from his job in a hot dog restaurant.

A 20-year-old student at Boston University willingly withdrew in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally. Nicholas Fuentes said he was receiving death threats after posting about his involvement in the rally on Facebook. “[T]hey sent in the national guard, counter protesters, and had the governor declare a state of emergency – all to silence us,” a portion of the Facebook post read.

While Fuentes made no secret of his place in the Charlottesville marches, a small cottage industry sprang to life online. It was dedicated to outing other participants who had previous been anonymous. One of the best known is a Twitter feed known as “Yes, You’re a Racist,” which gained prominence following Charlottesville. Logan Smith, the 30-year-old behind the Twitter feed, began receiving death threats after he outed people involved with the Unite the Right march online.

Smith shined an unwelcome spotlight on Peter Cvjetanovic, a student at the University of Nevada in Reno. After Smith identified him as the young man in a now-iconic photo from the march, Cvjetanovic quickly learned the reality of being “internet famous.” He rejected the notion he was an “angry racist,” and the university did not expel Cvjetanovic for his participation in the rally.

When Cvjetanovic came under fire, the ACLU volunteered to aid in his defense, triggering a new wrinkle in the debate about the free speech rights of white supremacists. Many activists decried the ACLU’s choice to stand up for Cvjetanovic. The ensuing debate included the idea of “free speech absolutism.” Once again, the idea of free speech was essential. The argument shifted to whether certain ideas — namely racial supremacy or outright Nazism — should be afforded any protection at all rather than debating whether ideas were valid on their face.

For what it is worth, Nevada-Reno is a state school and expelling Cvjetanovic would seem to unambiguously violate the First Amendment. Fuentes, on the other hand, chose to willingly withdraw from Boston University. Unlike Nevada-Reno, BU is a private institution and could have thrown out Fuentes for his comments.

The larger idea at play continues to be the idea of free speech absolutism, which posits all speech that does not violate previously established exceptions (like libel, for example) deserves a chance to be heard. How the debate evolves should become more clear as social media giants like Facebook and Twitter grapple with speech restrictions.

The fight echoes the battles libraries have long fought regarding content versus access. These issues are likely to show up in libraries yet again.


Jessica GarnerJessica Garner is the Access Services department head at Georgia Southern University and has worked in public and academic libraries for over ten years. She has been involved with children’s services, collection development, cataloging and interlibrary loan first as a public librarian at Live Oak Public Libraries and then at Georgia Southern University. Her scholarship interests include Interlibrary loan, intellectual freedom, and patron services. Find her on Twitter @jessCgarner.

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