Freedom of Assembly

After Violent Attack, Portland Mayor Calls for Abandoning First Amendment

For the millionth time, there's no "hate speech" exemption.


Mayor Ted Wheeler
John Rudoff/Polaris/Newscom

The mayor of Portland, Oregon, has strong words for those who would sow fear in his city and attempt to shut down citizens' rights to free expression: "I surrender."

On Friday, two men were stabbed to death on a train in Portland while confronting and trying to calm down a man who was allegedly loudly harassing two young women with anti-Muslim comments.

Mayor Ted Wheeler's response to this brutal attack was to essentially tell the world that violence can successfully be used to convince the government to shut down civil liberties. In a rather self-absorbed speech Monday that treats this horrible but isolated event as though it were some sort of mass slaughter deserving of a permanent monument and some sort of "leadership" by politicians, Wheeler is demanding that the federal government cancel the permits for a couple of upcoming "alt-right" rallies in Terry Schrunk Plaza.

He flat out said in his comments that the city would refuse to grant rally permits to alt-right groups based on their views. However, the plaza right by Portland City Hall is actually federal property, and Wheeler is trying to get federal authorities to revoke the permits for the groups involved in a pair of June events.

And while there's some gesturing toward the idea that he wants the city to have time to grieve, he wouldn't be making such demands if the stabber had been yelling just incoherent nonsense and not an anti-Muslim rant. That's because Wheeler makes it very abundantly clear that he believes the people organizing these rallies are bigots and he doesn't want them around. He's using this violence as a way of curtailing the First Amendment right to both peacefully assemble and engage in free speech.

In response to those who point out that the alt=right has the same First Amendment protections as the rest of us, Wheeler actually says, "Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution." (It's at about 6:54 in this clip of his comments.)

There is no "hate speech" exemption to the First Amendment, and it's bad enough when poorly educated college students believe that there is. We don't need politicians who run cities reinforcing the idea that such speech is not protected, because it feeds the idea that violent protests against certain speakers is therefore some form of heroic rebellion. He reinforces the mentality that threats, and even just fears, of violent responses are acceptable reasons to prohibit public protests.

This excuse is used by authoritarian regimes everywhere as a mechanism of suppressing speech. Once you send the message that violence will be used as a pretext to shut down the expression of certain opinions, violence is exactly what you'll get. Turkish authoritarian President Recep Erdogan claims that anybody speaking out against him is part of a violent plot to remove him in order to justify using government violence back against the critics.

At this point we should be less inclined to think that the "hate speech exemption" refrain reflects a person's ignorance of the First Amendment and more inclined to see it as a deliberate effort to will an idea into reality and to change everybody's perception of where speech's legal limits actually are.

Fortunately the American Civil Liberties Union's chapter in Oregon is tweeting back at the mayor, warning him that attempting to shut down rallies on the basis of disagreeing with the content is literally what the First Amendment is meant to prevent:

Protecting these rallies is one of the reasons taxpayers are asked to fund the police. Making sure violence cannot be used to suppress our rights to speak freely and to practice our various religions is one of the reasons we have a government police force. Maybe Wheeler should spend more time dealing with those responsibilities and less trying to take the lazy way out.