“This American Life” recently broadcasted a piece on the DeploraBall, an alt-right party celebrating President Donald Trump’s inauguration. At one point, Zoe Chace, “This American Life” producer, begins questioning an attendee about why they retweet David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, despite claiming to disagree with what he says. One answer came up again and again. To the attendees, Duke is a troll. He doesn’t actually believe that Jewish people secretly control the global government or that all Mexicans should be deported. He just wants to rile people up. It’s a comment on freedom of speech. Duke is really fighting against the boogeyman of political correctness.

I think there are many factors at play here. Our nation’s failure to have a continuous conversation on civil rights since the 1960s has helped create an environment where racism is seen as a relic and racist sentiments are only expressed ironically. Additionally, communities have become increasingly segregated so these people can’t put a face to their rhetoric. But, more importantly, it’s emblematic of the way that people on the far right have co-opted civil rights discourse to their own ends. At times, this has been explicit. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) once claimed that school choice is the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.” It goes without saying that he’s actively opposed issues supported by actual activists, like policing reform and protecting our LGBTQ citizens.

However, this appropriation of civil rights rhetoric happens in much more nefarious ways. Controversial public figure Milo Yiannopoulos’ book “Dangerous” is advertised in Amazon’s censorship section, next to activists who have been imprisoned by oppressive regimes for their anti-totalitarian writings. What has Yiannopoulos sacrificed for his beliefs? Well, he’s been banned from Twitter after helping launch a racist harassment campaign against “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones.

Yiannopoulos’ understanding of Twitter bans is best expressed in this tweet: “Easiest way to get banned on Twitter: criticise or ridicule feminism or Black Lives Matter. This is political.” Obviously, people should have the right to critique those movements, and societies have often benefited from gadflies who relentlessly question that which we hold sacred. But Yiannopoulos has no interest in that. He wants to destroy individuals with whom he disagrees. Yiannopoulos is a bully and it’s easy to stand up to one bully but not hundreds of faceless Twitter accounts.

This anti-democratic tendency to use freedom of speech, and Twitter in particular, as a cudgel against political opponents is epitomized by Trump. One of the most disturbing things on the campaign trail last year was when Trump was asked a tough question at a town hall meeting by a private citizen, Lauren Batchelder, and he chose to retaliate by erroneously claiming she was a plant by the Jeb Bush campaign. Afterward, throngs of Trump supporters dug up Batchelder’s personal contact information, a tactic known as “doxing.” She received death threats daily.

To people truly concerned about freedom of speech, this should be extremely worrying. People are going to have second thoughts about publicly disagreeing with our president and members of the alt-right after seeing this terrifying troll fusillade. As the saying goes, your freedoms end where another’s begin. Harassment is not protected by the First Amendment, and it presents a threat to our democracy by making people feel physically unsafe expressing their political opinions. I’m not calling for our entire society to become a safe space or for weaker protections of freedom of speech; I’m calling for the ones that exist to be enforced.

More than any other pillar of political rights, freedom of speech has been hijacked by figures such as Yiannopoulos. By framing their actions as an attack on political correctness, they find an audience far beyond their white nationalist clique. All rights have limits and speech is no exception. However, society will only reject odious hate speech once it understands that these “provocateurs” are anything but. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and revealing the true nature of the alt-right’s hate speech is the best way to undermine its claims as the vanguard of freedom of speech.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu

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