How to utilize the secret weapon of the first amendment

Why publicly debating extremist protesters can help their cause, and how ignoring them can kill it.

The First Amendment to the bill of rights reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” James Madison knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote those 45 words as the First Amendment to our constitution. Madison saw how destructive restricting speech could be on a government’s people, so he decided the freedom to speak freely and openly about our government was vital to the American experiment. Time and time again history has proven him correct. Some of the greatest social changes in this country have resulted directly from the free and open protest guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution. But access to this most powerful tools comes with some drawbacks. Extremist groups decide to put the limits of the First Amendment to the test, poking and prodding at the public in despicable ways while being protected under the same amendment that has led to great social changes in the U.S. They battle the public viciously and maliciously through awful attempts to spread hateful views to the American people.

An American plague: Why here? Why now?

Universities often find themselves at the forefront of these unholy battlegrounds, where extremist speakers such as Richard Spencer, the Street and Open Air Preachers of America (SOAPA), and Milo Yiannopoulos choose to display their heinous views. But why do they come to universities? Why do groups who exist to spout off insensitive, bigoted, and controversial views come to some of the most diverse institutions in the US, such as Georgia State University, to speak? Is it to convert young minds to their “cause”? To raise awareness of such issues as why the age of consent should be lowered to 13 (Milo Yiannopoulos), why Martin Luther King was “a fraud and degenerate in his life” (Richard Spencer), or why homosexuality is a choice and is “spreading like a plague” (SOAPA)? No. These groups are coming to universities for one reason and one reason only: to start fires. They want to engage students in a vicious shouting match that leaves them looking like the victim and students looking like the oppressors. They come with cameras and their most inflammatory statements to capture the eyes of National Media, where they can hijack the attention to attempt growing their cause and spread hateful messages further and further.

Knowing that this is their intention leaves us with two choices: the first, to engage with the protestors and give them the attention that they’re craving. This option may make us feel like we are making a difference, but these are groups so blinded by their hate that they are not open to rational views. The groups’ “protests” are neither at the place nor in the time to try to change their hateful views. Giving them their wanted yet unwarranted attention acts only as a way for them to plug in their microphone and reach a larger audience. The second option is to ignore them. Let them be seen as who they are: men and women with outrageously offensive views spouting them off to the empty heavens; a supernova, as their bigoted way of life is dying out in the U.S. The exasperated shout of a dying ideology.

A Secret Weapon of the First Amendment

I am not saying we should ignore our civic duties as US residents to engage in public debate. Ignoring someone is one of the strongest condemnations of their views that you can give. By engaging in public debate with someone, you recognize their argument as one that is worth your time. When SOAPA comes parading on campus, spouting their awful rhetoric and claiming students everywhere are going to hell, while ranting at an audience of zero, they look absurd. They look like the radicalized idiots they are, shouting to the void profane and hate-filled cries about their uninformed view of life. Letting the world know of their unwarranted complaints through their warped and twisted view of the world around them. However, give them an audience of 50 or so students, and they have now made a spectacle, a live public debate. They’ve been empowered by an audience that they don’t deserve. To them, an audience rationalizes their actions. To them, it’s the difference between looking like a raving lunatic or looking like a “leader in the Alt-right community.”

In more extreme cases, we see these hateful groups become victimized by sections of the public as they get national media attention when things go their way, and events break out on campuses. On Feb. 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos reared his ugly head on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley. The event, peacefully protested by over 150 students, quickly broke out into violence when outside groups, such as “By Any Means Necessary,” protested the speech with extreme and unprotected methods of engaging in debate. These violent protests allowed Milo Yiannopoulos, once a small, easily forgotten stain on the American front of public debate, to get national attention as he, his followers, and his abhorrent views became well known to the public. Fast forward six months later and Alt-Right rabble-rouser Richard Spencer leads a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in the most public display of racist, homophobic, and xenophobic views ever seen in the 21st century.

Let Us Lead

So let us, as the educated and diverse students of Georgia State University, continue to lead the way for better public debate in this country. Let us lead by no longer giving groups like SOAPA or the Alt-right an audience. Let us lead not by violently shutting down rallies, pricing them out of speaking venues, or blocking the movement of their fatally flawed fans, actions which will give them the media attention they crave, but do not deserve. Let us lead by exercising the secret weapon of the First Amendment: the right to not speak. Ignore these annoying, wasp-like pests when they come to campus. Let them know their worthless views won’t get the justification of a screaming match or an audience. The easiest way to silence someone is to stop listening, so let’s shut these people up.

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