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Save Our Speech 

I'm pro-free speech and I am not a Nazi. I feel I have to to start there following news story after news story about people protesting "free speech rallies" when what they are actually protesting is the gathering of Nazis and white nationalists and the spouting of racist ideas.

These images give me chills: mobs of people who wear white hoods or carry torches or wave Confederate flags or swastikas. But also terrifying is the idea of people protesting free speech.

The problem is one of euphemisms. These are bland or positive words or phrases used to hide or make digestible unpleasant concepts. My go to example is California's Proposition 187 in 1994, which some marketing genius titled "Save Our State." I suspect many people who voted for it didn't realize they voted to prohibit undocumented residents from getting emergency healthcare or their children from getting a public education.

There are lots of euphemisms: "Enhanced interrogation" comes to mind. You might have been "downsized" from your job. There's "collateral damage" in war and "ethnic cleansing." There is a president who is "loose with the facts." There's the "Alt-Right" in place of white nationalists.

I return again and again to my "Save Our State" example because it taught me how dangerous euphemisms can be. I'm not sure the California-proud title fooled people as much as it gave them a psychological excuse to vote for the measure or to shame them out of voting against it. Being called a Nazi is so bad that if you organize a rally around the term, you might only draw a small crowd. But if you call that rally a "free speech" event, it allows way more people to come forward who accept the same concepts as the people who proudly call themselves Nazis. That's basic marketing. You call Pop Tarts breakfast and get parents to inject their kids with sugar first thing in the morning. (I am NOT calling parents who do this Nazis! I have friends who give their kids Pop Tarts.)

The danger is that people accept the euphemism who are not the consumers of the concept. So a "free speech" rally that is really a rally of white nationalists now attracts a whole bunch of counter-protesters. They protest the ideas of white nationalism. But the news stories talk about people coming out to protest a free speech rally. Hence: Free Speech = Nazism. Your intention to protest Nazism can turn you into an anti-free speech fascist. (You're probably a Pop Tart parent to boot!)

These connections send chills down my spine.

In this column in May, I explained why I would defend Ann Coulter's right to speak at a college campus even though I disagree with just about everything she says. The First Amendment in this country gives us the right to express ourselves without landing in jail and is intended to protect speech you disagree with, not speech you like. It exists to protect minority opinions. The reason you want to protect that First Amendment right is because you don't know when you might find yourself in the minority. It is way more dangerous to cede your right to express yourself on the off-chance bullies come to power than to let bullies say things now that you don't like.

The irony of people coming out to protest Nazism disguised as free speech is that Nazis came to power in Germany in large part because Nazi marketing genius Joseph Goebbels figured out how to control the media and censor anti-Nazi messages.

In today's Germany, it is against the law to display the swastika. Some people say we should do that here and ban the Confederate flag as well. But banning Nazi symbols in Germany didn't make Nazis disappear. Neo-Nazis still exist in Germany, as does a political party that espouses Nazi ideals.

Here in this country, it wasn't that long ago that the government tried to silence people pushing for civil rights by connecting the concept to communism. Right now, our controllers of speech aren't in the government, but largely in the technology campuses of Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple. There they are coming up with ways to cleanse our social media of dangerous messages. That in itself is dangerous. Any parent knows that if you tell your kid she can't have something she will only want it more. Banning a book gives it sex appeal. One reason some gravitate toward the swastika is that it shouts fuck you! like nobody's business.

You can't ban bad ideas but you can shout them down. That's the idea behind the First Amendment. Good speech drowns out bad speech in the free marketplace of ideas. So go protest Nazism. Protest white nationalism. Protest racism. But don't fall into the trap of equating that with protesting free speech. Don't accept the euphemism. Don't spread it. Because what happens is that the person who isn't paying as much attention will grab onto the euphemism. Hearing that thousands of people are protesting a free speech rally, children will hear that free speech is bad. People too busy putting their fantasy sports teams together and watching Game of Thrones will hear how exciting the anti-free speech rally was. And before you know it, we have people calling for limits to expression in social media, in our businesses, workplaces, schools then in our movies, theaters and books.

Right now, you might be in the majority of ethically correct speech. But what happens when the next generation or the one after that gravitates toward the sexy minority opinion? Suddenly they become the majority and call for the repression of your speech, your ideas. At that point you will appreciate the protection the First Amendment gives you.

You need to appreciate it now.

Marcy Burstiner teaches journalism at Humboldt State University. If you are a Russian social media bot and you are out to flame her, her Twitter account is @burstiner.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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