At the U of M, a lesson in free speech

It’s safe to say that the residents of Skokie, Ill., were not at all happy in 1977 when Frank Collin, the leader of National Socialist Party of America, announced plans to march through the city. And why would they be? The disgusting display of Nazism was aimed directly at the city’s Jewish population, where one in six was either a Holocaust survivor or related to one.

Eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court all decided that it was unconstitutional to prevent the Nazis from marching.

Justice Louis Brandeis, who knew a few things about what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment, said they knew that “fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

Like the people of Skokie, some immigration activists and student groups at the University of Minnesota were unhappy with the messages painted on the Washington Avenue Bridge by a group with opposing views, in this case the College Republicans who want a wall built along the country’s southern border.

“This political campaign is turning people against one another and is using the tool of dehumanizing other human beings for political gain,” said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, of NAVIGATE MN, at the protest, according to MinnPost. “Your free speech hurts … and marginalizes people. There [should be] a line.”

In fact, there is a line. Just ask the people of Skokie, the Illinois Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. A political message that people may find offensive doesn’t cross it.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, whose job it is to educate the young minds of a free country, tried to do just that when he sent this letter to the student body over the weekend.

Dear Twin Cities campus community,

During the annual “Paint the Bridge” event, an opportunity for registered student groups and University departments to promote their groups by painting a panel on the Washington Avenue Bridge, one panel assigned to a student group has received attention.

The panel includes the phrase from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, “Build the wall.” While this is protected as free, political speech, we have heard from members of our community who find the phrase hurtful, offensive, anti-immigrant, and anti-Latinx.

People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed. However, while the University values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.

The University of Minnesota supports a campus climate that welcomes all members of our community and our values of equity and diversity, but that also ensures the free flow of ideas, even those that are offensive to some.

As students and our community participate in responses to this and future issues, I urge all of us to be respectful and thoughtful in our approach. We encourage all who find some protected speech distasteful or offensive to engage in more protected speech.

Eric W. Kaler

One sign at the scene of the vandalized political messages said, “hate speech is not free speech,” but for purposes of the Constitution, it’s not much of a legal argument. While there is a recognized First Amendment exception for fighting words, “hate speech” doesn’t have a fixed legal meaning.

The people of Skokie didn’t take the Nazis lying down. The built a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust along the route the Nazis intended to march. Their speech was more powerful, just as the framers of the Constitution intended.

Opponents of a political view at the University of Minnesota also have significant power at their hands. They can vote.