A core First Amendment right could come under renewed attack, by the Marxist-lite Green Party which seeks to use the horror of last weekend’s violent Charlottesville protests and the white supremacist groups involved there.
In a new press release, the national Green Party calls for the “vigorous prosecution of white supremacist groups responsible for the violence, injuries and deaths” which occurred last weekend. Three people, including two state police troopers and 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer, died in connection with the protests.
However, the press release fails to distinguish between rightfully prosecutable acts of violence, which are bonafide crimes, and membership in groups which, however odious, is protected under the First Amendment. Indeed, the press release is titled, “Green Party urges prosecution of white supremacist groups for domestic terrorism in the wake of racist violence in Charlottesville.”
The question to be raised concerns the nature of the crime: Is it the violence itself, or is it the act of being in a particular group?
When tensions are high, the temptations to avoid the rule of law can become even higher. Human nature involves such passions. However, our Founding Fathers recognized the perils of those passions; indeed, that is why America is now fashioned as a constitutional republic.
To be sure, most people do not (and will not) grasp these delicate distinctions. However, such ignorance, by people who purport or aspire to be opinion leaders in society, cannot be excused or ignored. Whether this is an innocent oversight, or a more nefarious attempt to conflate and obscure the distinction between the felonies of murder or manslaughter, and membership in some of the most despicable organizations known to exist in our society, remains to be seen.
Responsible civic and opinion leaders must recognize and explain these distinctions. The tragedies of this past weekend, the results of indefensible acts by equally indefensible (and utterly repugnant) people, should not be permitted to become the pretext for a much broader wave of content-based restrictions on constitutional rights including, but not limited to, the criminalization of association by a minority which are disfavored, disapproved or merely opposed by the majority.
While today the target of such passions may be a clearly repugnant group, there can be no assurance that the precedent won’t be set for use against a broad array of groups, businesses, even churches, tomorrow.
Our Constitution, and our courts including the Supreme Court, recognize First Amendment rights as “core constitutional rights” which are not subject to restriction due to the unpopularity of any group.
Prosecuting organizations for their horrible beliefs is antithetical to the Constitution and will be more likely to strengthen rather than destroy them. The most effective way to deter future violence is to prosecute the “overt acts” of the people actually responsible.