Staff Columnist

Free speech for all, except anti-fascists?

Members of the Great Lakes anti-fascist organization (Antifa) protest against the Alt-right outside a hotel in Warren, Michigan, U.S., March 4, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Members of the Great Lakes anti-fascist organization (Antifa) protest against the Alt-right outside a hotel in Warren, Michigan, U.S., March 4, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Iowa is in the middle of a national debate over free speech and radical politics.

Kirkwood Community College instructor Jeff Klinzman was removed from his position last week after a local TV news station reported he is a supporter of the self-proclaimed anti-fascist movement.

Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg wrote in a statement that the decision to remove Klinzman from the classroom was motivated by a “commitment to foster a safe learning environment.”

That is just one example of ongoing efforts to restrict the rights of antifa activists. Republican U.S. senators introduced a resolution this year that would label antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. Trump has likened antifa to a gang.

It is a misguided anti-free speech campaign. Americans who don’t believe in the First Amendment still are entitled to its protections.

Antifa is widely misunderstood, partly because it is not actually an organization. There is no formal governing structure, no official platform of beliefs and no spokespeople to articulate the movement’s objectives.

In general, antifa calls for direct action to confront perceived right-wing fascism. One common antifa belief is that violence is a reasonable and justifiable response to

apparent threats. Those threats include tangible violence by racists — such as the woman who was killed by a car at the 2017 “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Va. — or by the government — such as police brutality.

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However, threats also might include speech that activists believe is tantamount to violence. That marks a stark difference between antifa and the many Americans who believe speech and violence are distinct things.

Many antifa forums on the internet feature memes and statements advocating for or glorifying political violence — punch Nazis, eat the rich, guillotine politicians.

I suspect the vast majority of people promoting such messages are just trying to make a point, and actually would not initiate violence against their ideological enemies. Those who are inclined to engage in physical confrontations usually are tactful enough to not publicly discuss their plans.

Contemporary antifascism represents a denial of classical liberalism, the prevailing American political ideology that values pluralism and free speech absolutism.

In the 2017 book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” author and movement sympathizer Mark Bray summarized the movement’s outlook as a rejection of the classical liberal adage, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Indeed, antifa demonstrators have been documented physically obstructing journalists’ work. Some Iowa organizers now are demanding that KCRG fire the reporter behind the Klinzman story.

Americans on the right and the mainstream left are understandably disturbed by these illiberal tendencies. There seems to be a disconnect between some antifa activists’ use of force against opponents and the fact that “forcible suppression of opposition” is a tenet of fascism, per Merriam-Webster’s definition.

Nevertheless, we cannot fight illiberalism with more illiberalism. If we abandon our values to protect them, there will be nothing left worth protecting.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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