free speech sign

Are Confederate statues anti-American? Citing them as symbols of racism and white supremacy, figures of Confederate heroes are coming down around the South. The Pentagon effectively banned the Confederate flag. Some consider these actions important steps to take to counter this nation’s history of persecution of non-white Americans. As symbols of a regime that upheld slavery, they should no longer be allowed to stand, serving as rallying points for hate groups. On the other hand, shouldn’t a nation founded on free speech allow its citizens to choose what symbols and historical figures they want to elevate?

As Americans’ understanding of the ramifications of untrammeled free speech grows (hopefully), a contrasting approach can be seen across the pond, in Germany. Sarah Wildman’s article in Vox, “Why you see swastikas in America but not Germany,” shares how this country deals with its Nazi past – a time when arguably even worse and more grotesque persecution and murder was pursued with the sanction of the state.

At the end of World War II, the Allied powers banned the swastika, the Nazi Party, and the publication of Hitler’s racist text, Mein Kampf. A few years later, the new West German government put in place laws banning Nazi symbols, language and propaganda. There are no public statues of Hitler and his henchman in their former fatherland. The government also bans the incitement of the people with hate speech, and like a dozen other European countries, criminalizes Holocaust denial. Even tourists will be cited if they give the Nazi salute.

The official judgment that the former regime was evil, and the horrors it perpetuated, is clear. There’s no ambiguity for today’s hate mongers to hide behind. The German Parliament voted unanimously 60 years ago, made it illegal to incite hatred, to provoke violence, or to insult, ridicule, or defame “parts of the population” in a manner apt to breach the peace. Over time this prohibition was extended to include racist writing.

Furthermore, the evils of Nazism are taught to every generation of German children, to again avoid the temptation to backslide into the errors of the past. When I once expressed a hesitation of traveling in Germany – many years ago –due to its Nazi heritage, to a co-worker who was from that country, she assured me that what happened in the 1930’s and 40’s could never happen again. “Every school child is taught the truth about what happened and what our ancestors did,” she told me.

Will America have to experience the horrors of a racist, amoral Fascist regime to learn the full dangers of allowing hate rhetoric under the aegis of free speech? It’s time to face up to the fact that free speech is abused when it is allowed to incite violence or hate crimes which are the antithesis of the American dream.

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