Portland is suffering, but censorship is wrong
The suffering city of Portland, Ore., could use a break from ugly rhetoric and political extremism, from the kind of angry activism that too often begets violence. The community is in shock.
Last Friday, an abusive man began screaming racial and religious insults at two young women, one of whom was wearing a Muslim headscarf, aboard a commuter train. When three male passengers tried to intervene, the aggressor pulled a knife, killing two of the men and injuring a third.
The alleged killer shows zero regret. During his arraignment Tuesday on nine criminal charges, including two counts of murder, Jeremy Joseph Christian bellowed nonsense, calling himself a "patriot" and ranting about "death to enemies of America." Police documents show that shortly after his arrest, Christian bragged about the stabbings and expressed his hope that all three victims would die.
It's perhaps understandable, then, that Mayor Ted Wheeler is dismayed at plans for two public "alt-right" rallies to take place over the next two weekends: a Sunday "Trump Free Speech" gathering and a June 10 anti-Muslim-themed "March Against Sharia."
Wheeler has asked that organizers voluntarily cancel their plans, which is reasonable. And he has demanded that the events be banned, which is not.
In a drama that has played out this week on Twitter, Wheeler called on the U.S. government to revoke or refuse use permits for a federally owned downtown plaza near Portland City Hall where the alt-right events are scheduled.
A spokesman for the mayor said Tuesday that the intent is to prevent violence, not to shut down free speech.
But, intended or not, a shutdown of free speech would be the result. The mayor does not have the authority to stop these events, even if his motivations are valid.
Dallas witnessed a public-assembly quandary of its own last summer: After the devastating ambush murders of five police officers by a lone gunman during a downtown "Black Lives Matter" protest, Police Chief David Brown asked organizers to relocate other protest marches scheduled downtown in the following weeks.
But the protesters followed through on their plans, and a small march was held without incident.
Brown asked; the marchers said no. Likewise, Wheeler can ask. He may have good reason to ask. But he cannot ban the events.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been uncompromising in its view of the situation. In a statement addressing Wheeler's comments, the ACLU of Oregon said: "The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period."
Yes, nerves are frayed in Portland. The community is weary — and wary — of overheated rhetoric.
But court rulings are clear. Free speech, obnoxious and offensive as it can be and too often is, is protected as an inviolable and fundamental right.
"If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we will all pay the price down the line," the ACLU's statement said.
Yes, we will. Free speech is not, as Wheeler mistakenly believes, beside the point. It is the point, and it must be safeguarded.
Dallas Morning News, May 31, 2017