James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to produce more von Brunns

First, a short, one-question test:

Q: Passing a Constitutional Amendment or federal law against flag desecration would:
a) lead to fewer incidents of flag desecration.
b) lead to more incidents of flag desecration.

Would anyone with half a brain answer a)? It is obvious such a law would inspire protests, and create more of what the law was trying to eradicate.

It is also clear to me that other forms of censorship will most likely have deadly consequences.

But remarkably, columnists and playwrights are promoting censorship. That is, they want "hate speech" laws. This position is so obviously juvenile, and counter-productive, it's a shame that it has acceptance in the mainstream. It takes probably a minute's reflection to realize censorship will only beget more violence. Instead of "rounding up" the von Brunns of the world before they act, such censorship will only motivate them to act because they'll have little left to lose. If they don't shoot hated minorities, they will shoot the very cops who come to arrest them.

As Wendy McElroy has written, the 19th-century individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker thought political violence "could be justified only when freedom of speech and freedom of the press had been destroyed."

This makes sense. Where there are freedoms of speech and press, there is the chance to educate and persuade. Violence would not be persuasive; violence would inspire others not to act against the State, but rather to side with the State.

Admittedly, it could be said that it wouldn't be prudent to use violence even after freedoms of speech and press have been destroyed, because the people still might side with the State.

On the other hand, where there is censorship, there is no "political order" and no ability to persuade. There is a lot less to lose. The calculation is:

1. Do nothing, say nothing, and the State might leave you alone (unless they found out you had said something it doesn't like back in the pre-censorship days).
2. Speak out, and get arrested.
3. Resort to violence, and get arrested.

The question I'm dealing with is not whether it is right to use violence in this situation, it is whether or not more people will resort to it.

Radical movements of every kind attract a disproportionate share of odd personalities, with radical movements founded in bigotry the most disproportionate by far. Such personalities often harbor fantasies of the coming race war and develop a sense of persecution. But like all citizens, they value their freedom to proclaim their thoughts and ideals. To vent, debate, persuade, and educate. They speak their opinion and move on to the next thing. They hope that over time more and more people come to their point of view. Von Brunn was an exception.

What happens if the freedom to speak and write is restricted by the government? What if it becomes a crime to speak or write from a certain point of view?

Then individuals who hold that point of view will have less to lose by resorting to violence. Those who are already unstable will more likely conclude that, with their freedoms of speech and press now gone, it is time to indulge their fantasy and resort to violence.

Moving against the speech of white supremacists will produce more von Brunns, not less.

Freedom of speech has only served to marginalize the white supremacist, Nazi, and other odious movements. Politically-motivated and hate-motivated crimes make the news because of their rarity, not their frequency.

Taking away the First Amendment rights of bigots will not lead to less bigotry. It will, instead, be the last straw for a number of them and provoke more violence.


  1. adaptune6:33 AM PDT

    Well said, Mr. Wilson! I am one of the people who has vowed to burn flags starting the day it becomes illegal to do so. I do not, of course, associate myself with hate-filled people like von Brunn, but far better that people like him spout their bile in words than spew it as bullets!

  2. I agree that there should be no prior restraint on speech, even if hateful. That's not to say that speech acts which are elements of a crime should not be prosecuted. For example, if the speech act conveys a threat of violence or is a direct incitement to violence, that might be criminal. It could also be part of the proof of a conspiracy charge.

    There could also be penalties for libel and slander.

    I see no need to regulate beforehand what anyne might say.