“Free speech or die, Portland. You got no safe place. This is America, get out if you don’t like free speech,” said domestic white terrorist Jeremy Christian as he was led into a Portland courtroom on Tuesday. “Leave this country if you hate our freedom… You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism… Die.”
Christian is a dangerous terrorist with a known track record for spewing hate speech. The Southern Poverty Law Center has found numerous instances on Christian’s Facebook page of him praising the Nazis, and describing Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a “TRUE PATRIOT!!!” He has openly discussed trying to make the Pacific Northwest a “homeland” for whites, and frequently attends alt-right and “free speech” rallies.
Last week, Christian’s hate speech culminated in a vicious hate crime in broad daylight on a crowded Portland commuter train. After approaching two African-American teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab, and telling them to kill themselves and to “get out of his country,” he attacked the commuters who attempted to protect the two young girls and usher him off the train. Christian stabbed and killed Ricky John Best, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche.
Christian also stabbed Micah Fletcher in the neck, but fortunately he survived the attack. Namkai-Meche’s last words were, “Tell everybody on this train I love them.” Fletcher sat in the back of the courtroom on Tuesday surrounded by family, and the sizable scar on his neck represented the scope of the brutality of Christian’s attack.
To further exacerbate the trauma that has consumed the Portland community, an alt-right rally called the “Trump Free Speech Rally” has already been scheduled for this Sunday, June 4, in Portland, and another has been proposed for the following weekend, June 10. Christian’s hate-filled associates will take to the streets of Portland.
In response, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has requested that the federal government revoke the permit for the June 4 rally and not issue one for the proposed June 10 rally. Wheeler contends that “a message of hatred and bigotry” will only escalate this tense situation, and has argued that “hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”
Unfortunately, Wheeler is only correct on the former and not the latter, and this brings about America’s absurd and dangerous interpretation of free speech following Brandenburg v. Ohio.
In Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg in 1964 gave a speech at a KKK rally saying that, “The n***** should be returned to Africa, the Jew returned to Israel… If our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there might have to be some revengeance taken.”
The state of Ohio found Brandenburg guilty of violating the state’s criminal syndicalism law that outlawed advocating “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform,” and assembling “with any society, group, or assemblage or persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.”
Brandenburg appealed his conviction, arguing that Ohio’s criminal syndicalism law violated not only his First Amendment rights, but also the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Those who oppose integration and diversity frequently invoke the Equal Protection Clause. This case represents one of many instances where racists have manipulated the rights and freedoms given to African Americans after the Civil War via the 14th Amendment to continue the status quo of racism and terrorism.
In 1969, the case made it to the Supreme Court, and the Court sided with Brandenburg. In their decision, the unanimous majority argued that Ohio’s law ignored whether the advocacy or teaching of hate would incite imminent lawless action. According the Court, Ohio needed to prove that the actions at this rally led to a specific crime. Since Brandenburg did not leave his rally and immediately inflict terror on blacks, Jews, or the government, the Supreme Court sided with Brandenburg.
This decision treated the KKK as if this group posed a threat equal to that of a coed intramural softball team. The fact that the KKK was formed for the explicit purpose of terrorizing American citizens and undermining the federal government seemed to not matter in this decision. A history of lynchings, cross-burnings, and the attacking of any and all Americans and American institutions that advocated for racial equality did not factor in the Court’s determination as to whether the gathering of a known terrorist group could pose an “imminent” threat to society.
The Court used a whitewashed, idyllic interpretation of American history that ignored the dangers of white supremacy to further normalize white terrorism and hate speech. This decision also made it legal to shout “fire” in a crowded theater—the paraphrase of a passage from William O. Douglas’ famous opinion that way back in 1919 had banned inciteful speech.
Brandenburg has remained the unchallenged freedom of speech benchmark for the last 50 years.
America is still reeling from the repercussions of this decision, and the Trump administration certainly will not entertain any possible limits to free speech to protect American citizens. In fact, Brandenburg has normalized the demonization of American minorities by white Americans and the assumption that their hate-filled rhetoric will not result in hateful acts. This standard has provided the template for Trump’s rise to power, as he galvanized an electorate of angry white Americans via populism, nationalism and the demonizing of Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, women, and more.
Portland’s mayor can request help from Trump and the federal government for the safety and security of the residents of Portland, but his pleas will fall on deaf ears. As Portland’s situation escalates, the federal government will probably adhere to our unfortunate legal precedent. It will pay more respect to the dangerous, hateful rantings and ravings of a white supremacist than the plight of American minorities and communities that support racial equality.
And do not be surprised when Trump supporters call this hate speech and the resulting violence “patriotism.” They alarmingly have more legal precedent on their side than the champions of civility and racial equality.