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Viewpoints on Free Speech and Charlottesville Differ at Georgetown Event

November 1, 2017 – An ACLU lawyer and a Black Lives Matter activist were among the panelists at a Georgetown event debating issues of free speech after the August violence involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sanford Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown, moderated the panel, which included Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the District of Columbia, and DeRay McKesson, a leading voice for Black Lives Matter and co-host of the weekly podcast Pod Save America.

Rounding out the Oct. 30 panel were Timothy Longo, retired Charlottesville police chief who now teaches and directs public safety administration at the University of Virginia, and Paula Xinis, U.S. District Court judge for the Maryland District.

Police Force Failure

Paula Xinis sits between Timothy Longo and DeRay McKesson on stage in Gaston Hall as they discuss Charlottesville and free speech.Through the Free Speech Project he founded at the university, Ungar, a journalist and former college president, documents and analyzes incidents around the country in which free speech is challenged both in higher education and in civil society.

The event began with snippets from Vice News Tonight’s “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” which captured the anti-Semitic chanting and the chaos of the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally that ended in violence, including the death of a counterprotester. 

The ACLU lawyer defended the right of the demonstrators to rally in Virginia.

“I think what happened in Charlottesville was a real failure by the police department to keep separate the right-wing demonstrators and the counterprotesters,” Spitzer said. But he also said, “These are American citizens. …They have a right to demonstrate, same as people on the left have a right to travel and demonstrate, and that right needs to be upheld.”

Race-Based Enforcement

McKesson challenged the idea that what happened in Charlottesville was a peaceful rally, noting the weapons some of the demonstrators carried.

He said enforcement at such protests seem to be based on race. If African American protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, or St. Louis had treated police officers the way they did in Charlottesville, he said the protest “would have immediately been called an unlawful assembly or a riot.”

“I don’t know how we talk about free speech and not talk about the unequal distribution of power and also the unequal enforcement,” McKeeson said. “I don’t know any police officer who would say people pushing them is a peaceful demonstration. If we would have done anything like that in St. Louis, we all would have been shot.”

Identifying Protestors

Ungar brought up the fact that some Charlottesville demonstrators had been identified by their co-workers and subsequently fired from their jobs. He asked the panel if that was the right course of action by employers.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Spitzer said. “An individual who commits a heinous crime should go to jail and should probably lose his job before he goes to jail. There are lots of people throughout the political spectrum that have views that are not mainstream.”

He noted that marches supporting gay rights were once viewed as controversial by the mainstream.

“Why should you be cut out of the workforce if you have political views that are either past their time … or maybe never will become mainstream? Spitzer asked. “But how will we know?