On Saturday, eleven people were murdered and four were injured in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The shooter, Robert Bowers, was a frequent poster on the social media platform Gab, where he wrote virulent anti-semitic remarks and threatened to carry out acts of violence against Jewish people.
This weekend’s mass shooting adds to the growing number of attacks against Jewish people in the United States. According to The Anti-Defamation League, 2017 saw a 57% rise in anti-semitic incidents in the United States, including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses. Perhaps the most high-profile of these incidents was the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, where Neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right marched through the University of Virginia wielding torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Donald Trump refused to directly condemn the actions of the rally’s organizers or its participants.
While it’s uncertain as to whether this rise in anti-semitism emboldened Bowers to commit the atrocity at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the unchecked and unreported rants and threats he posted on Gab seem to have played their part. It also seems clear that Bowers’ account wasn’t one that simply fell through the cracks of Gab’s hate speech policy–mainly because Gab never had one. Gab marketed itself as a free speech platform that was made, as described by CEO Andrew Torba, to “step up and defend free speech, defend individual liberty, [and] defend the free flow of information.” Even now that Gab has been shut down due to payment processors, hosting providers, and app stores retracting their business with the website, their rhetoric suggests that it is an attack on free speech–rather than a condemnation of hate crime–that has left them de-platformed. “Gab.com is under attack,” reads the homepage welcome message. “We are working around the clock to get Gab.com back online. Thank you and remember to speak freely.”
This is not the first time that the phrase “free speech” has been used as a uniting platform for the far right. The Boston Free Speech Rally, for example, was a protest organized by members of the right wing political movement known as the alt-lite, and this year thousands of members of the far-right English Defence League marched through London under a banner of free speech.
The connotation of free speech to the alt-right is more than troubling. It is dangerous. It allows white supremacists to disguise bigotry as justice and oppressors to paint themselves as underdogs. It seems almost antithetical for self-described Neo-Nazis and Western Chauvinists to claim freedom of speech as their rallying cry when it has historically been such a powerful tool for social justice.
And yet it isn’t antithetical. Because ultimately, freedom of speech does belong to the alt-right–just as it belongs to antifascists, leftists, anarchists, party line democrats and conservatives, activists of all movements, and everyone in between. And as painful as it is to admit when we are angry and grieving, freedom of speech belongs to people like Richard Bowers.
The alt-right has abused its right to free speech. Its members have used their constitutional right to expression as a tool to spread hatred, bigotry, and violence. And yet it is this constitutional right that we need to defend, because it is a right that belongs to Black Lives Matter activists as much as it does to Richard Spencer and David Duke. It belongs to us publishing our thoughts on this site as much as it did to Jay Near publishing The Saturday Press.
The growing connotation between free speech and the alt-right isn’t just dangerous because it allows the alt-right to hide. It is dangerous because it tempts us to distrust free speech as much as we distrust those who abuse it; and by coming after their right to speak, we only grow closer to silencing ourselves.