The appearance last week in Corvallis of a pickup truck bearing an anti-Semitic message prompts a tricky series of questions, but one question beats at the heart:
How should a community respond to this kind of offensive, hateful speech?
A number of mid-valley residents noticed the sign on the truck on Thursday morning, parked near the intersection of Kings Boulevard and Monroe Avenue. It read: “Roses Are Red Violets Are Blue Race Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re A Jew.”
The truck, it later turned out, is owned by James Marr, a known neo-Nazi who lives in Springfield. Marr occasionally has visited Corvallis to offer different takes on his hate-filled views. And he's been associated with Andrew Oswalt, the 27-year-old Oregon State University student accused of placing racist bumper stickers on cars outside of a Showing Up for Racial Justice meeting in Corvallis last June. (Oswalt, by the way, was recalled from his student government position in an election last week, which I suppose is one effective way to send the message that a community — in this case those OSU students who were moved to vote in the student election — doesn't appreciate hate speech.)
Here's one way that doesn't work: According to a police report, Marr's truck was vandalized by someone who wrote "F--- you Nazi Scum" on the truck's sign with a Sharpie. Let me be blunt: That sort of criminal behavior is akin to the action of slapping a racist bumper sticker on someone else's car.
As hateful and offensive as the message on the sign was, it's clear that it was protected free speech. In fact, it's worth remembering through all of this that the First Amendment is intended to protect unpleasant and offensive language in most cases. (This is a point, by the way, with which an increasing number of Americans are uncomfortable, but that's a topic for another time.) The language on the sign, although it's meant to be provocative, clearly is protected speech.
Some kinds of speech are not protected by the First Amendment. But, as lawyers such as Eugene Volokh of UCLA have pointed out, those tend to be narrow exceptions. For example, there is an exception for so-called "fighting words," face-to-face personal insults addressed to a specific person. Another exception involves true threats of illegal conduct or incitement intended to produce imminent illegal conduct.
The sign on the truck didn't rise (or fall, as it were) to that standard. The message is covered by the First Amendment.
So the question remains: How should a community respond?
I was gratified that many of you thought of contacting the newspaper to tell us about the truck. To be truthful, I'm a little wary of giving too much publicity to these incidents, because it seems to me that publicity is one of the aims of the people behind these stunts. (On a more practical level, the Gazette-Times' reporters were swamped on Thursday and couldn't immediately get to the story.)
But G-T photographer Andy Cripe did manage to swing by the scene, which is where we found out about the response of part-time Corvallis resident Yosef Chaim, a kosher rabbi. Chaim saw the truck on Thursday and decided he wanted to know more about the motivation behind the stunt, to learn more about why the truck's owner was "trying to push that agenda on young impressionable minds."
He didn't get the chance: While Chaim talked with Cripe, whoever was driving the truck skulked back into it and drove away.
“That man didn’t want to have anything to do with us,” Chaim said. “He watched us congregate and then he snuck out quietly.”
It's unlikely that the discussion, had it occurred, would have changed any minds, but one message would have been clear to the driver: At least one member of this community isn't willing to let this sort of hate go unchallenged.
By "challenge," of course, I don't mean any sort of physical confrontation. But the antidote to this kind of hate speech is more speech, to send the message loud and clear that this community does not endorse or believe in hatred. It isn't always easy: To speak out against hate takes courage, which is part of the reason why I found Chaim's actions last week inspiring.
I was surprised and delighted by Chaim's other suggestion for how to deal with hatemongers like the driver of the truck: “If the whole community prays for that man, that man would change immediately,” he said. “That’s how powerful prayer is.”
Then it struck me: Prayer, of course, is free speech as well. There's real power in all of these words. Let's use them wisely and with love. (mm)