Why did the city of Charlottesville, and the state of Virginia, suspend the First Amendment for Saturday’s calamitous “Unite the Right” rally? And would the outcome have been different—one protester dead in a deliberate car-ramming, two state troopers killed in a demonstration-related helicopter accident, and a nation’s confidence in its institutions severely shaken once again—had the authorities vigorously defended all parties’ constitutional right to free expression?
True enough, there scarcely is a more shocking image in America than a swastika being lifted high at a white-power political rally. That’s more appalling than a “kill the pigs” sign at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, if only for its relative singularity, though the symbols have this in common: they are meant to inflame and provoke, and they invariably succeed. In the process, they severely stress a fundamental principle of American democracy: the individual’s right to free expression and the concurrent obligation of government to protect that right.
Well, there was plenty of expressing going on at Charlottesville over the weekend, but precious little protecting. Details remain thin. It is not clear, for example, how many alt-right demonstrators were there, though many reports indicate that they were substantially outnumbered by counter-demonstrators, largely drawn from the same crowd that has been rioting at the drop of Donald Trump’s name since November 9.
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