Portland's mayor took a stand against hate, but the ACLU is pushing back. Here's why.


You can’t overcome hate with censorship, but that doesn’t mean it has to win.

On May 26, 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian allegedly stabbed three men on board a Portland light-rail train after they attempted to intervene on behalf of a Muslim woman who Christian was verbally harassing.

Two of those men, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best, died while a third, Micah Fletcher, survived.

Photos of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best in a memorial set up in Portland. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/AP Images.

Three days after the incident, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler weighed in with an important message for his city.

In the message, posted to his Facebook page, Wheeler calls on the federal government to revoke the permit granted to an “alt-right” group hosting an event in Portland’s Shrunk Plaza in June.

He also appeals to the organizers of the white supremacist group to cancel the planned demonstration. “There is never a place for bigotry or hatred in our community, and especially not now,” Wheeler wrote.

“I am calling on every elected leader in Oregon, every legal agency, every level of law enforcement to stand with me in preventing another tragedy.”

Here’s the full text of Wheeler’s post:

“On Friday three men Rick Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and Micah Fletcher stood up against bigotry and hatred. Two paid with their lives. A third was seriously injured.

Our community remains in shock and mourning. But we are also tremendously grateful to our heroes and their families for their selflessness and heroism. They will serve to inspire us to be the loving, courageous people we are meant to be.

As Mayor, I wanted to update you on a few developments:

1) I have reached out to all of the victims and their families, including the two women who were terrorized and subjected to such hatred and bigotry. I have offered my unconditional assistance and support, day or night.

2) I have confirmed that the City of Portland has NOT and will not issue any permits for the alt right events scheduled on June 4th or June 10th. The Federal government controls permitting for Shrunk Plaza, and it is my understanding that they have issued a permit for the event on June 4th.”

3) I am calling on the federal government to IMMEDIATELY REVOKE the permit(s) they have issued for the June 4th event and to not issue a permit for June 10th. Our City is in mourning, our community’s anger is real, and the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation.

4) I am appealing to the organizers of the alt-right demonstrations to CANCEL the events they have scheduled on June 4th and June 10th. I urge them to ask their supporters to stay away from Portland. There is never a place for bigotry or hatred in our community, and especially not now.

5) I am calling on every elected leader in Oregon, every legal agency, every level of law enforcement to stand with me in preventing another tragedy.

6) When and if the time is right for them, I would like to work with the families to find an appropriate way to permanently remember their sacrifice and honor their courage. Their heroism is now part of the legacy of this great city and I want future generations to remember what happened here, and why, so that it might serve to both eradicate hatred and inspire future generations to stand up for the right values like Rick, Taliesin, and Micah did last week.”

The ACLU of Oregon, however, doesn’t agree with Wheeler, saying that what he suggested is a form of censorship.

In a response on their own Facebook page, the organization explained (emphasis added):

“Our hearts are broken, but government censorship is not the answer. The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period.

It may be tempting to shut down speech we disagree with, but once we allow the government to decide what we can say, see, or hear, or who we can gather with, history shows us that the most marginalized will be disproportionately censored and punished for unpopular speech.

We are all free to reject and protest ideas we don’t agree with. That is a core, fundamental freedom of the United States. If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line. We must defend the Constitution, even when it is uncomfortable.

If the government has concrete evidence of an imminent threat they can and should address it without restricting First Amendment rights of others.”

The thing is … both Wheeler and the ACLU of Oregon are right in different ways.

So where does that leave us?

At his arraignment, Christian shouted, “Free speech or die. Get out if you don’t like free speech … you call it terrorism, I call it patriotism … die.” Photo by Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Like a lot of things in life, it’s a bit nuanced.

Before you hop on #TeamTed or #TeamACLU, it’s important to acknowledge that pretty much everyone involved in this has good intentions, is disgusted by Christian’s actions, and doesn’t want anything like it to happen ever again.

On one hand, you can absolutely see where Wheeler is coming from. With tensions running high and the fact that Christian had just recently attended a similar rally, it makes perfect sense that his impulse would be to shut down upcoming rallies for fear of provoking or inspiring another attack. With the city still mourning this loss, it’s understandable that he’d look for ways to de-escalate the situation however he can and send a strong message against hate and bigotry.

On the other, the ACLU is totally right when it says the government can’t simply revoke permits because of someone’s political views. Responding to a comment on Facebook, the organization suggested that the mayor take a more measured approach that doesn’t violate the Constitution by talking to the groups planning to hold rallies and asking them to reschedule in light of the recent attack. The groups don’t have to, but without outlining why these rallies pose an imminent threat, that’s about all Wheeler can legally do.

Freedom of speech, however, does not mean speech without consequences.

There are times when law enforcement can and should intervene to prevent speech from becoming action. For this, let’s look at how the ACLU responded to the 2011 shooting outside the office of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (emphasis added):

“It is important to remember that while the First Amendment carefully guards our liberty to speak freely except in the most circumscribed situations, it is not a barrier to effective law enforcement against those reasonably believed to be involved in unlawful activity. … In times like these, it is natural to look for ways to quell our horror and fear. But it is when people feel most vulnerable that our liberties are most at risk. Unraveling the principles that form the core of our democracy is not the answer.”

No matter what someone’s personal politics are, no matter what group they belong to, it’s important that they’re afforded that crucial right to freedom of speech. However, in heated times with heated rhetoric, we — and law enforcement agencies — have a responsibility to prevent that speech from boiling over into physical violence.

If the groups behind those upcoming “alt-right” demonstrations want to act in good faith, then yeah, perhaps they should think about canceling their demonstration in light of recent events. Up until Jeremy Christian pulled out a knife, he sounded just like them. To show that they do not condone his behavior — and not risk being seen as “reasonably believed to be involved in unlawful activity” and held responsible should another attack happen — canceling might be in their best interest to preserve their freedom of speech.

Whether or not these demonstrations happen, it’s on the rest of us to not let an ideology of hate win out.

We can look to the brave men who lost their lives to this senseless violence as an inspiration to recommit to looking out for one another and standing up against hate. That might just be the best way to honor their memories.

A memorial set up in Portland shares a message of love and hope. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy via AP Images.





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