Schweitzer, Southers discuss hate speech, policy implications after Charlottesville

Photo credit: Alison Wrabel on Twitter

by Matthew Kredell

After the events in Charlottesville, people have reason to discuss what constitutes hate speech and its impact on the public, Associate Professor Lisa Schweitzer told an audience of students, faculty and staff at a Sept. 12 Policy Forum hosted by the USC Price School of Public Policy.

“Hate speech along the lines of what was aired in Charlottesville is much more like yelling fire in a crowded theater than people thought before,” Schweitzer said. “You can’t engage in behavior that’s actively harmful, and there’s an emerging consensus that hate speech produces exactly that effect. It creates an environment that undermines the safety and security of people of color, and it should be treated more like the problematic speech that becomes limited and is not given a public platform.”

USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott and Professor Erroll Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute, in a discussion of the policy implications and responses to racism and extremism after the violence triggered by a white-nationalist rally in the Virginia city last month.

“To me, it was a real shock to think in the 21st century, this is what’s happening in our America,” Knott said. “Charlottesville was the raising of an ugly history in the present. We have a history of racism, violence and bigotry. It’s something the country really hasn’t overcome or come to terms with in a way that we need to.”

Knott added that the Price School is doing what it can with its scholarship, its teaching and action in the community to not relive that history.

Schweitzer noted that this history persists in our daily lives.

“White supremacy is not a historical construct we get to walk away from,” Schweitzer said. “We have to really interrogate how white supremacy informs public policies within the structures of our cities, within education and politics.”

Lisa Schweitzer, Dean Jack Knott and Erroll Southers (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

Evolving Extremism

Southers, who also serves as director of Homegrown Violent Extremism studies at USC Price, indicated that he considered Charlottesville a pivotal moment for extremism in the country.

“What makes this event a game-changer is you have people from neo-Nazis to neo-confederates to the Klan, to the so-called alt-right, all deciding that they are going to be able to work together,” Southers said. “That’s what made this really different. These are groups that typically don’t work together. They have their own internal strife, and they decided on that day they’d be together.”

Another alarming factor in the incident, according to Southers, was how well-prepared the white supremacist groups were for the rally, including online infiltration of counter-protest groups.

Southers, who spent the majority of his career in law enforcement, said that police should have ended the rally when protesters left the location for which the permit dictated.

As to the needed discussion of hate speech brought up by Schweitzer, Knott mentioned that, internationally, the U.S. probably has the most liberal laws on free speech. The open-carry gun laws also are unique, and the combination of the two – having people with the right to be armed and to assemble to make incendiary remarks – can lead to possibly dangerous protest conditions.

“It’s not an easy public policy issue,” Knott said. “You get people who really support free speech in this way for good reason, and you get people who really believe in the right to carry arms for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with racism. They have to do with the notion of a free society and that you ought to be able to defend yourself. But that combination can be really disastrous and is peculiar to the United States.”