“The Battle of Hate:” and Freedom of Speech in the US

Mia Levine, Annie Sinert, Contributing Writer

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On September 17, 2019, Robert Trestan presented to Clark University on “The Role of the Constitution in Combating Hate in America.” Trestan is the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (also known as the ADL) Boston office. From Boston, he leads regional law enforcement for national attention. He started his speech with the forty-five words that compose the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and then dove into his first encounter with the Constitution itself. 

He claimed that the United States is currently “in the frontline in the battle of hate” due to the First Amendment, specifically the freedom of speech clause. This clause is used for reasoning on both sides of the fight. The First Amendment protects five rights: freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. Trestan chose to focus on the freedom of speech aspect of the First Amendment. 

He spoke about the recent Straight Pride Parade in Boston, a modern story examining the freedom of speech clause. Prior to approving their permit to assemble, Boston’s Mayor, Marty Walsh, made it clear he did not personally agree with the parade and only allowed it because of the freedom to assembly clause also included in the First Amendment. At the parade, many protesters were arrested and thus given an arraignment date. The prosecution argued to drop the case but the judge did not allow this. The appeals court sided with the prosecution and the protesters were set free. 

Another story Trestan chronicled involved the Laconia Daily Sun, a local newspaper in New Hampshire. The paper published a letter written by a white supremacist who wrote that the Holocaust was all just an extensive hoax. The Laconia Daily Sun received massive criticism which the editor of the newspaper rebuked using the First Amendment. 

Another example Trestan drew upon was the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website used to promote and spread hate, run by Andrew Anglin. In June of 2019, the website targeted Tanya Gersh, a female Jewish realtor from Whitefish, Montana. Gersh was helping a resident of Whitefish, Sherry Spencer to sell a house when it turned out that Spencer’s son, Richard, was an American neo-Nazi. Shortly after this discovery, Sherry Spencer accused Gersh of harassing her to sell the house, a story which quickly reached Anglin and The Daily Stormer. 

Anglin posted Gersh’s personal information on his website, encouraging people to harass her and her family. She received hundreds of hateful messages and threats and was forced to move out of Whitefish with her husband and twelve-year-old son. Gersh then filed a lawsuit against Anglin and his website whereupon Anglin claimed that his posts were protected by the First Amendment, though the judge did not agree with him. In the end, Gersh was awarded a 14 million dollar settlement. 

Trestan’s final story followed the case of Wisconsin v. Mitchell. This case followed Todd Mitchell, a young black man, who allegedly instigated a fight with a young white boy. Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery and was sentenced to two years in prison. Following his conviction, the court was presented with new evidence that Mitchell had acted on race-based motive and his sentence was increased to seven years. 

Mitchell decided to challenge his increased punishment, questioning a potential violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where it was found that Mitchell’s First Amendment rights were not in violation and that the Wisconsin statute was akin to anti-discrimination laws that comply with the First Amendment. 

After this story, Trestan concluded with what he had originally begun with, the forty-five words of the First Amendment. He also asked the audience to think about a few words that are associated with hate in America. Just a few of the words thrown out were equality, inequality, race, justice, and discrimination. 

The concept of treating every person equally was not around when the Constitution was written so many years ago. Trestan mentioned how the very fabric of the United States is composed of the people who live here and how the First Amendment is to be applied today. He concluded his powerful speech with the quote, “words are only as powerful as we make them: our future depends on us.”