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Published September 14 2013

Forum editorial: A real test for free speech

No matter the outrage most North Dakotans feel about a white supremacist’s attempt to take over the small Grant County town of Leith, Craig Cobb has broken no laws thus far and is exercising his rights within the strictures of the U.S. Constitution. And when a former North Dakotan leads a protest in Leith against Cobb and his associates a week from today, the same constitutional protections and privileges will apply to him and his like-minded friends.

We say “most North Dakotans” are outraged because it is likely more of our neighbors and friends than polite company cares to admit share Cobb’s disgusting racial beliefs and nonsensical neo-Nazi philosophy. Just scratch the patina, probe a bit into endemic attitudes, and you’ll find racism, subtle but virulent.

Call what Cobb & Company are up to “hate speech” if you will. But that ubiquitous phrase has become almost meaningless in part because anyone who feels offended by a critical or contemptible remark defines it as hate speech. Merely voicing a hateful doctrine is different from using speech to incite violent behavior. Offensive speech does not necessarily qualify as hate speech. The line can be fuzzy, but there is a constitutional line. The First Amendment was not adopted to protect North Dakota-nice speech. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights, nor should there be, that protects any of us from being offended by the words of another.

Thank God and the founders for that.

The situation at Leith escalated last week when it was announced that Jeff Schoep, commander of the National Socialist Movement, will visit the town. It further heated up when former North Dakotan Scott Garman and friends said they were organizing a protest in Leith in response to Schoep’s visit.

Schoep and his ilk are the real thing: They like some of the ideas Adolf Hitler promoted in the failed Third Reich. They fly flags that feature the swastika. They call units of their movement “stormtroops.” They are unapologetic racists. They are associated with a network of white supremacist organizations and individuals. They should be made to feel unwelcome in Leith or anywhere else.

The protest to be led by Garman (formerly of Casselton, N.D.) and two Moorhead natives is in keeping with the American tradition and cherished right of speaking out when wrongdoing is afoot. The best offense to offensive free speech is enlightened free speech, not shouting down the other’s speech. Not censorship. Not threats of violence.

In the end, vigorous and right-minded free speech will triumph over the grim bigotry that seems to motivate Cobb, Schoep and their racist allies.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.