The right to protest ought to be universal

James Bryan, Comment Managing Editor

by: James Bryan


As white supremacists and neo-nazis marched on Charlottesville, Va. protesting the removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee, chaos and violence ensued. Counter-protesters clashed violently with the alt-right, leading to dozens of arrests and a tragic murder.

While groups advocating for racial inequality were at the center of controversy, the actions of a group that stands for equal protection was at the center of another.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came under much scrutiny for defending Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, in court after his permit to protest was revoked by the City of Charlottesville. While in no terms condoning the hatred and bigotry represented by these alt-right groups, the ACLU was right to defend Kessler’s First Amendment rights.

It any democracy, especially our own, the right to protest is fundamental. It really should be universal. The problem in Charlottesville is that the state granted this right to protest to specific protesters, not all of them.

Kessler’s main claim in court, according to U.S. District Court Judge Glen Conrad, was that his right to assemble and speak freely was deemed unlawful, while those of counter protesters were protected by the city. Charlottesville tried to move the white nationalist protests over a mile from the planned location, an obvious attempt to mute the voices of groups they prefer not to deal with.

While the Unite the Right’s message is abhorrent, the actions of the city of Charlottesville contradict the principles this great nation was built upon. The silencing of unpopular political opinions by the government is the defining quality of a dictatorship.

Even though violence does not deserve protection under the First Amendment (as it was eventually declared an illegal assembly because of this), the fault of allowing this violence does not fall on the ACLU, but on the police department. According to both sides of the skirmish, officers watched silently as protesters and counter-protestors were attacked, and only stepped in to ensure peace when a state of emergency was declared.

After Jason Kessler was assured his permit to protest, the duty to protect the public is no longer with the permit grantors or defenders. While I do not condone the violent nature of the protests, injury could have been prevented not by prohibiting the rallies, but by a competent police force.

However, the ACLU did somewhat change their stance on hate after the fallout of Charlottesville was fully taken in and they received heavy criticism. The organization now says they will not defend groups who say they plan protest with loaded firearms or with the intention of inciting violence.

And I agree with this. The First Amendment does not protect this kind of speech, just as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded building. But this does not apply to Jason Kessler and Unite the Right, who were only there to protest the removal of a controversial historical figure.

Most importantly, neo-nazis swept under the rug are arguably worse than neo-nazis out in the open. As the ACLU’s executive director brilliantly said, “Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground.” Hatred can only be dispelled when a society comes together against it. While, prior to the events in Charlottesville, it was common knowledge that this hatred existed in the United States, the severity of these beliefs and the current state of our society could not have been fully evaluated.