Lessons from Virgina

Neither in the plain wording of the First Amendment nor in numerous court decisions reaffirming and elaborating on it is there any license for violence or inciting it. Yet some of those who use free speech as a shield clearly are bent on doing harm to others.

A small group of bigots was successful in doing just that on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. Ostensibly, they went to the college town, home of the University of Virginia, to protest plans by the city to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a municipal park.

But the appearance of many of them made it clear they were primed for a fight. In addition to Ku Klux Klan robes, there were helmets, body armor and clubs.

Let it be noted the same equipment could be seen on and in the hands of some counter-protesters.

Fighting broke out quickly. Then, according to police, a man from Ohio drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people.

Adding to the day’s tragedy, two Virginia State Police officers died when the helicopter they were using to monitor the demonstration crashed.

No doubt investigations of the tragedy will focus on the assault by car. But a more wide-ranging probe also is needed to learn just what happened in the wider riot, and why police were unable to prevent it.

One reason is clear: Law enforcement authorities bend over backward to avoid infringing upon First Amendment rights. Wearing combat equipment and carrying weapons such as clubs is not viewed as a legitimate reason to make an arrest or halt a demonstration. Neither is fiery rhetoric, as long as it does not cross the line to openly exhorting people to commit acts of violence.

As many demonstrations have shown, however, the line between whipping up a crowd’s emotions and saying things that make some of its members attack can be a very, very fine one.

Knowing exactly what happened in Charlottesville is important so police and other government authorities can learn whether the riot could have been prevented.

It is possible it could not have been forestalled without banning the protest entirely — and that clearly would have been an infringement upon First Amendment rights.

So, how to prevent similar violence in other places and over other disagreements? It may not be possible. Again, remember that those who organize demonstrations usually stay within First Amendment limits and almost never begin the violence themselves. It is those in the crowds who are the danger.

It is important that what happened be studied carefully and objectively to learn whether the authorities could have done something differently to prevent the violence.

But it may well have been impossible for them to do that. Once that fine line was crossed, infuriating people on both sides, fighting may have been inevitable. Too often, we tend to blame the police for failing to contain violence. Realizing that is unrealistic may be unpleasant, but it is knowledge that could be useful in avoiding violence at similar confrontations in the future — and, rest assured, such showdowns will occur.

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