Trump Supporters Accuse Liberal Communities Of Hostility Toward Free Speech

Jun 5, 2017
Originally published on June 6, 2017 7:49 am
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Thousands of protesters and counter-protesters converged in downtown Portland, Ore., yesterday. Supporters of President Trump held what they described as a free speech rally. They say liberal communities like Portland are hostile to free speech. But NPR's Martin Kaste says it's not only conservatives who are making that claim.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Trump people were not welcome in Portland yesterday, especially because of their willingness to attack Islam and illegal immigration. As they arrived in the park for their rally, they were met by much bigger numbers of counter-demonstrators.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho (ph), ho, these Nazi scum have got to go.

KASTE: Nazi scum have got to go was probably one of the milder chants. A Trump supporter who gives his name as Samuel Hyde responded by waving an American flag and certain hand gestures.

SAMUEL HYDE: Ask these people if we should have a right to say what we believe in. They will say no because they will say no free speech for hate speech.

KASTE: And it's true. A lot of the counter-protesters on the other side of the police lines did say that. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tried to get the pro-Trump rally canceled, saying he didn't think hate speech was protected by the First Amendment. Samuel Hyde says that's just how liberals think.

HYDE: These guys don't believe in the First Amendment. But the Constitution is there, and thank God for it.

KASTE: When it comes to the right to free speech, Hyde says it's use it or lose it. That conviction has driven this group of hardcore Trump supporters up and down the West Coast lately. They show up in liberal bastions like Berkeley and Seattle, trolling the liberals, as one of them put it. It's their response to scenes like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING, CROSSTALK)

KASTE: This is a recent video from The Evergreen State College. It's a famously liberal school in Olympia, Wash. It shows a group of students confronting a biology professor named Bret Weinstein because he questions certain diversity policies on campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You said some racist [expletive], and will you apologize?

BRET WEINSTEIN: I did not. I did not.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, you did.

KASTE: Now, this professor considers himself a liberal, and he objected only to some aspects of the diversity policies. But the students were still outraged, and they wanted him punished or fired. Jeremy Willinger has studied this video closely. He's a spokesman for Heterodox Academy. It's a group of academics that's challenged what they see as the leftist political orthodoxy in academia. Willinger says the students in that video treat the professor as a kind of blasphemer.

JEREMY WILLINGER: There's a point where Weinstein is kind of surrounded and then he says, would you like to hear my response?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEINSTEIN: Would you like to hear the answer or not?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: No.

KASTE: He says the way the students shout the professor down contradicts the traditional American approach to free speech, which is that the best answer to the speech you don't like should be more speech.

WILLINGER: Let all ideas be exposed to sunlight. And let the good ones, you know, kind of percolate upwards.

KASTE: But this faith in unfettered free speech strikes Vann Newkirk as naive.

VANN NEWKIRK: I think the idea that the best idea will always win out in America, in our marketplace of ideas, is just wrong.

KASTE: Newkirk is a staff writer for The Atlantic who's been writing about radicalization and white supremacy groups. He believes in free speech, but he says not all Americans have it equally. And he thinks free speech by itself does not guarantee that the best ideas will prevail.

NEWKIRK: I think if you look at how rapidly bigoted views become realized violence, I think it's wholly understandable why people are more willing to think about limiting certain portions of speech, hate speech especially.

KASTE: And in fact, The Evergreen State College got a taste of this just last week after Professor Weinstein had taken his story to conservative news media and the anonymous threat came in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I am going to execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of. Do you have that, what's going on there, you communist [expletive]?

KASTE: That threat caused the college to cancel classes. Student protesters like Blake Vincent blame the professor.

BLAKE VINCENT: Now that campus has been shut down due to the viral nature of the narrative that he set into place, it has endangered students.

KASTE: The college president, George Bridges, says he doesn't blame the professor. And he says the behavior of his students recently is actually symptomatic of a national trend.

GEORGE BRIDGES: Are people listening with open and thoughtful minds? Are they listening in reasoned ways? And the answer is in many cases no. They're listening to reject opinions as they come out of the mouth of the person who's speaking rather than understanding the complexity of that person.

KASTE: The president knows that in some of those videos from campus he looks passive in the face of students who curse him and shout him down. But he says if he looks passive, it's only because he was trying to show the students what it looks like when someone listens. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.