The debate over “free speech” in the United States is complicated (a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous). Sometimes, supporting “free speech” means opposing state censorship; other times, it means opposing activists who try to preempt speech they disapprove of through protest or pressure campaigns — which is to say, through free speech. So, the argument isn’t a binary one.
But on the American left, one of the more prominent views is that our nation’s free speech absolutism is misplaced: Giving proponents of violent, racist ideologies free rein to promote their worldviews does real harm, and that harm is disproportionately visited on disempowered social groups. Letting Nazis march is more dangerous than giving the state the power to prohibit them from doing so. Governments can bar advocacy for genocide without becoming totalitarian — as Europe’s liberal democracies have proven.
Another prominent view on said left is: “Uh, have you seen the state lately?” Or, more precisely, why do you trust the police departments and district attorneys’ offices that (by your own account) systemically discriminate against African-Americans with the power to determine what is and is not hate speech? Did you not see the NYPD Sergeants Union suggest that outrage over police killings of unarmed suspects is “blue racism”? Or that a bipartisan group of senators is trying to make boycotting Israel (in support of Palestine civil rights) a jailable offense? The left is too weak to make the state restrict speech as we would wish it to — so, we’re better off safeguarding our own speech rights by supporting the broad coalition in favor of absolutism.
On Friday, the German government provided the second camp with some fodder for their case. As the New York Times reports:
An influential website linked to violence at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg last month has been ordered to shut down, in the first such move against left-wing extremists in the country, the authorities in Germany said on Friday.
Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister, said that the unrest in Hamburg, during which more than 20,000 police officers were deployed and more than 400 people arrested or detained, had been stirred up on the website and showed the “serious consequences” of left-wing extremism.
… Linksunten.indymedia, founded in 2008, billed itself as “a weapon in the social struggle” and said it was a “decentrally organized global network of social movements.”
… In Hamburg last month, about 500 police officers and an unknown number of protesters were wounded in scenes of looting, improvised firebombing and setting cars on fire close to where world leaders had gathered. The ministry said that the website had referred to police officers as “pigs” and “murderers,” and had featured instructions for creating Molotov cocktails.
The German government argued that the website had worked to legitimize violence against police officers, and constituted an “expression of an attitude that tramples human dignity.”
Now, it’s possible for an American progressive to believe that all speech that advocates violence should be regulated — and that the benefits of stymieing white-supremacist organizing outweigh the costs of forcing Black Lives Matter activists to be very careful about how they describe police officers. And, of course, the argument “if we keep going down this road, we could end up like Germany” still does a lot more to support the case for censoring fascist speech than allowing it.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine Attorney General Jeff Sessions using his power to restrict speech more judiciously than Angela Merkel’s government — and rather easy to picture him doing the opposite.