By Will Clemons
On January 11th, 1989, former President Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, claimed that the United States is “a shining city upon a hill”. Reagan used this phrase because he felt it had a metaphorical accuracy, and the U.S. is a pinnacle of democracy; a state of government to be idealized and pursued.
One of the things that makes the United States so attractive to those denied rights is the freedoms given to its citizens, like freedom of the press, religion, and many others. Recently though, some have called into question the freedom of speech and assembly in wake of the 2016 presidential election.
A man named Richard Spencer, who attended an anti-Trump protest during the president’s inauguration, chose to protest the protesters. Spencer is a known “alt-right” nationalist, who has, under many circumstances, proclaimed his views against globalization of cultures and same-sex marriage. He has also called for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
Spencer’s attendance to said protest caught many people’s attention, and while he was interviewed by two filmmakers and the Washington bureau chief of ABC, a man ran up and punched Spencer in the face. Both the assailant and Spencer fled.
The video of Spencer being attacked took to the internet very quickly, with many asking questions about the state of protesting and free speech. Many Twitter users debated about the legitimacy of attempting to silence a person through violence for their radicalized and bigoted ideologies.
The debate never came to a conclusion however, with both camps refusing to concede. Brandon Ambrosino, a controversial writer for Vox with anti-progressive LGBTQ views, gave his two cents in an article for The Globe and Mail, an influential Canadian news source, saying that
“we need to find a way to nonviolently counter Mr. Spencer’s bigotry.”
The debate gradually stagnated, until the news of a mass shooting in a Quebec City mosque broke. On January 29th, around 8:00 pm, a 27 year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire on the mass of people. Six were killed and nineteen others were injured in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls “an act of terrorism.”
This shocking event revived the conversation, when evidence came about that Bissonnette had, according to his peers, become a right-wing troll who supported nationalism, who, ever since French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen visited Quebec City, was inspired to undergo extreme online activism. Some people questioned if authorities had intervened in Bissonnette’s actions, then maybe the attack wouldn’t have occurred. Most agree that the answer is unclear, but the question was raised either way.
On the other end of the political spectrum, when Betsy DeVos, the recently confirmed Secretary of Education of the United States, decided to travel to Jefferson Middle School in DC, a small group of protesters showed up and blocked DeVos’ entrance to the school. Police intervened in an encounter the Washington Post describes as, “a pretty striking scene”.
DeVos was forced to enter the school through a back entrance as protesters physically obstructed her ability to enter the school. Later, when she was asked about the event, DeVos said,
“I respect peaceful protest, and I will not be deterred in executing the vital mission of the Department of Education.”
The combination of the assault on Richard Spencer and the peaceful obstruction of Betsy DeVos has led many Americans and outsiders to question the position of free speech post-Inauguration, as the President has responded to not just these events, but to negative press surrounding him and his assistants. Trump tweeted about the subject on February 6th, saying “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”
It appears to many that the president does not value the rights of Americans, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as much as other Presidents have in the past. As the number of people arrested while protesting increased, Adam B. Schiff, a Democrat from Burbank, reminded Democrats to keep their eyes on the prize, and that
the more radical the administration is, the more radicalized our base becomes … and who knows where that ends.