Punish the act, not the thought

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Repulsive speech is constitutionally protected. Rioting is not.

AMIDST ALL THE righteous indignation over the provocations last weekend in Virginia by neo-Nazis, Klansmen and the like, let's spend a few minutes doing something guaranteed to rile folks up.

Defending the extremists' right to gather in a public place to express their views.

Look at the upper right hand corner of this page. Those are the words of the very First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Five freedoms are forever guaranteed: (1) no establishment of religion; (2) no interference with how people worship; (3) no restrictions on freedom of speech; (4) no infringing freedom of the press; and (5) the right of people to gather peaceably and petition government to address their grievances.

THE KEY WORD, as it applies to protest, is "peaceably." Demonstrations can be big. They can be loud. They can be disruptive. They can be unpopular. They can be downright obnoxious and repulsive.

They cannot be violent.

When that happens a protest becomes a riot, and rioters are subject to enforcement of the laws against endangering others or damaging property.

Some may remember, in 1978, when a group of Nazi sympathizers wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois, home to a large Jewish population and many Holocaust survivors. Understandably, people in Skokie were outraged and wanted to stop the march. The American Civil Liberties Union went to court to defend the neo-Nazis' right to peaceably assemble, under the First Amendment. The ACLU won the case, but the group chose not to stage the march anyway. Smart decision.

Not surprisingly, though, the ACLU was widely condemned for defending the indefensible. With all respect, that misses the point.

The ACLU was not defending Nazis. The ACLU was defending the Constitution, asking the courts to confirm that, yes, America's founding document means what it says.

ALWAYS REMEMBER, popular speech is unlikely to require defense. The First Amendment establishes individuals' rights to speak out, publish and gather together in protest even when their opinions run counter to the majority.

People of goodwill can be forgiven for wishing the government would set aside such legalities and not allow Nazis and Klansmen to vomit their hatred all over a community. These are disgusting, hateful groups well deserving condemnation.

But the First Amendment is the bedrock upon which American liberty is built. Freedom can withstand the ranting of lunatics. Freedom could not withstand empowering government functionaries to decide who will or won't be allowed to speak up.

The instant any demonstration turns violent, though, the First Amendment steps back and law enforcement steps up.

In America, we punish the act. We do not criminalize thought.

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