Charlottesville: Free speech is never an invitation for violence

Neither in the plain wording of the First Amendment nor in numerous court decisions reaffirming and elaborating on it is there any license for violence or inciting it. Yet some of those who use free speech as a shield clearly are bent on doing harm to others.

A small group of bigots was successful in doing just that in Charlottesville, Va. Ostensibly, they went to the college town, home of the University of Virginia, to protest plans by the city to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a municipal park. But the appearance of many of them made it clear they were primed for a fight. In addition to Ku Klux Klan robes, there were helmets, body armor and clubs. Let it be noted the same equipment could be seen on and in the hands of some counter-protesters.

Fighting broke out quickly. Then a man from Ohio drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people. Adding to the day’s tragedy, two Virginia State Police officers died when the helicopter they were using to monitor the demonstration crashed.

No doubt investigations of the tragedy will focus on the assault by car. But a more wide-ranging probe is needed to learn why police were unable to prevent it.

One reason is clear: Law enforcement authorities bend over backward to avoid infringing upon First Amendment rights. Wearing combat equipment and carrying weapons such as clubs is not viewed as a legitimate reason to make an arrest or halt a demonstration. Neither is fiery rhetoric, as long as it does not cross the line to openly exhorting people to commit acts of violence.

Knowing exactly what happened in Charlottesville is important so police and other government authorities can learn whether the riot could have been prevented. It is possible it could not have been forestalled without banning the protest entirely — and that clearly would have been an infringement upon First Amendment rights.

How do we prevent similar violence in other places and over other disagreements? It may not be possible. Remember that those who organize demonstrations usually stay within First Amendment limits and almost never begin the violence themselves. Those in the crowds are the danger.

It is important that what happened be studied carefully and objectively to learn whether the authorities could have done something differently to prevent the violence. But it may well have been impossible for them to do that. Once that fine line was crossed, infuriating people on both sides, fighting may have been inevitable.

The only way to stop that inevitability is for all Americans of all political persuasions to understand that free speech is never an invitation for violence toward each other.