When people use free expression to combat violence, bigotry, and hatred, suddenly free speech champions become authoritarian tyrants.
The right wing loves free speech. Well, the right wing loves pretending it cares about free speech. A couple years ago, Richard Spencer even admitted to opposing free speech. In a podcast episode, an interviewer asked him, “but as far as government regulation, I mean yes, in the short term we would favor government regulation of speech but, long term, uh, are we even pro-free speech?” Spencer responded, “no, of course not, but we have to use this platform…” Don’t believe me? Watch for yourself:
The hypocrisy in this line of reasoning is that the right quite often attacks its political opponents for being anti-free speech. But in reality, it is the right wing who attempts to silence the free speech of others. Protest movements have sought to shut down Drag Queen Story Hour, for example. A left-leaning Black female professor was fired for comments on Fox News supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The common thread in this right-wing attack is an ideologically motivated push against people who hold values that strive for equality. In this, too, I find myself under attack.
There’s one problem. It’s not a crime to point out that neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other far-right extremists commit the vast majority of extremist-related crime in the United States. The ADL, which studies extremism both left-wing, right-wing, and otherwise-affiliated, wrote in 2019 that, “of the 42 extremist-related murders in the U.S. last year, 38 were committed by individuals subscribing to various far-right ideologies, including white supremacy.” They came to a similar conclusion in 2018, stating, “The extremist-related murders in 2018 were overwhelmingly linked to right-wing extremists. Every one of the perpetrators had ties to at least one right-wing extremist movement, although one had recently switched to supporting Islamist extremism. White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.” And again, in 2017, “a majority of the 2017 murders were committed by right-wing extremists, primarily white supremacists, as has typically been the case most years.”
The ADL is not the only one noting this rise. In comments this year, in Congressional testimony, the FBI noted the “increasingly lethal threat posed by violent extremism to the Jewish community.” The Bureau elevated racially-motivated violent extremists to a “national threat priority” this year as well. Racially-motivated hate crimes hit a 16-year high in 2019, according to the FBI.
No matter how you look at it, right-wing violence is increasing. More than ever, we need effective journalism to understand it.
First Vigil was a project started with a simple intention: track the far-right crimes that were being reported in the news. This mission has not changed. First Vigil was designed to track right-wing crimes precisely because numerous sources, both governmental and non-governmental, have identified the rise in far-right or white-supremacist violence and terrorism. It should be no secret why the right is attacking me for it. When confronted by objective statistical reality, it is the mission of the right wing to silence those who dare to speak about it.
I will not be silent, because writing about white supremacist violence is not a crime. Even nations with robust privacy laws also have a protections for free expression. Article 85 of the GDPR explicitly states that Member States must reconcile the protection laws with the right to freedom of expression for journalistic and academic purposes. Newsworthy information is similarly protected, as is information deemed to be in the public interest. Even the Right to be Forgotten is weighed against the right to free expression and public interest; though I would honor any such request if one were ever to be made (and one hasn’t).
Every case on First Vigil is associated with a newsworthy event published in reputable journalistic institutions. In many cases, First Vigil contains less information than these newsworthy articles have. For instance, First Vigil does not, unless it is relevant to understanding the case, publish cities of residence, ages, or other identifiable information, let alone detailed private data not generally accessible. Moreover, the case research done on First Vigil corrects, updates, and verifies information. For instance, when charges are dropped or reduced against someone accused of a crime, this information gets updated in the databse. (There may be some time lag, since it is a manual process.) This does not always happen in other reporting. First Vigil is non-comprehensive; an unfortunate reality is that so many hate crimes are being committed that I simply cannot keep up.
First Vigil is protected journalistic activity. The right to discuss, in specific details, incidents of right-wing violence in a time when right-wing violence is broadly recognized as one of the foremost threats to public safety, is without a doubt protected free expression. Absurd are allegations that writing about far right violence is in any way harassment or stalking or an incitement to do those things. American journalistic standards involve publishing the names of the accused, in all but special circumstances. Public access to records is a core principle of American legal ethics, and journalistic ethics imposes a duty to report accurately matters in the public interest. First Vigil does nothing more than aggregate and organize newsworthy information. Contrary to wild allegations of “crime laundering,” seemingly a term invented by a random Twitter user purely to harass me, doing research and writing about far-right terrorism is not illegal.
The far-right knows that it cannot win on grounds of morality or ethics. Instead, they frequently craft conspiracy theories, tell lies, and make allegations against those who have the temerity to stand up to their violence, terror, and hate. I will not let them intimidate me into silence. Writing about white supremacy is not a crime.