How does a tolerant society defend its values?

Is there a point at which it becomes dangerous for democratic societies to tolerate intolerant speech and action? That’s an old question in political philosophy that’s relevant again today as resurgent neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups turn up the volume on efforts to publicize messages of hate in the United States.

The specific fear, of course, is that a tolerant government might be toppled via its own virtue. An illiberal faction could use freedom to attract adherents, rise to power, and then crush dissent. This has happened in real life. See: Germany, Adolf Hitler, 1933.

But veering too far in the other direction has its own risks. There’s a line at which a liberal nation that restricts angry and/or unpopular opinions becomes the intolerant oppressor it is trying to oppose.

This dilemma faces official and citizen groups alike. It’s trickier than it might seem, given the First Amendment to the Constitution and America’s general heritage. Consider the American Civil Liberties Union, which earlier this month defended the right of white supremacists to march in Charlottesville, Va. The ACLU leadership faced a blistering backlash from many members who felt that some speech might indeed be too offensive to protect.

“Where is the line between protected speech and that which is unacceptable in public discourse?” says Gordon Coonfield, an associate professor of communications at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “This is a question that we as a society have struggled with – not always to our credit – and we must continue the struggle.”


The events of the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville are the context for this reappraisal of the nation’s approach to free speech. White supremacists feel emboldened by the national political response to their rally to protect a Robert E. Lee statue, according to posts on far-right websites. Rightly or wrongly, adherents of the so-called “alt-right” see President Trump’s assertion that “both sides” are to blame for the violence that led to the killing of counter protester Heather Heyer as a nod towards white identity politics.

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about [Charlottesville],” tweeted white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke following Mr. Trump’s statements.

This increased confidence on the far right has put some historic advocates of free speech on the defensive. The ACLU has long…

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