Wesley Casteen: Free speech or extortion?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

By Wesley Casteen

In recent weeks, pro-Palestinian protests have roiled college campuses nationwide. In many instances, protests led to encampments, which in some instances resulted in takeovers of university grounds, facilities and buildings.

Thus far, North Carolina’s colleges and universities have been spared the worst effects of the protests and rioting, thanks in no small part to quick and decisive actions by school administrators.

When protesters and disrupters took down the American flag at UNC Chapel Hill and replaced Old Glory with a Palestinian flag, the interim chancellor, Lee Roberts, immediately restored our nation’s flag to its rightful place.

Palestine supporters and campus protesters have attempted to present these events as organic and naturally occurring — as being demonstrations of righteous indignation resulting from the alleged oppression of the Palestinian people by the Jewish state of Israel. However, disorder and disruptions are often fueled by professional activists and agitators. The participants are would-be rebels and revolutionaries. They have adopted Palestine as their cause célèbre, but many are woefully ignorant of history, both near-term and ancient.  Some might call them Rebels without a Clue.

With protesters having adopted the Palestinian cause, it is fair to ask certain questions: Given both the unprovoked Oct. 7 attack by the political authority and terrorist organization, Hamas, and the present state of war between Hamas and Israel, is it realistic to draw a distinction between the Palestinian people and Hamas? Is it possible to advocate for the “Palestinian people,” who by many accounts heavily support Hamas and its express objective to eliminate or eradicate Israel, without taking sides in an active conflict? Should one choose to side with Palestinians, does that mean that (s)he is necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? Is it possible to sit on the fence or to walk a tightrope between the two?

In this election year, many in politics, including President Biden, have been slow to respond to these protests turned riots. In giving lip service to “free speech,” they choose to ignore behaviors, which under any circumstances should be deemed improper, if not criminal. So far, more than 2,000 persons have been arrested.

No one is materially infringing upon “free speech.” The cacophony of shrieks and shrills prove that protesters are speaking often and loudly. However, truth and veracity are not determined by volume or frequency. Protesters wish not just the ability to speak but the ability to compel agreement and to force changes in the behaviors of others. The freedom of speech affords them no such benefits or privileges.

The First Amendment within the Bill of Rights precludes government from abridging speech based upon its content. The freedom of speech does not guarantee a speaker a particular forum. It does not guarantee one an audience for his speech. It does not guarantee that any party will be receptive to the speech or agree with the positions and propositions. It does not guarantee that the speaker can speak with impunity — without adverse consequences imposed by offended or opposing parties (other than the state). The freedom of speech comes with the concurrent rights of others to ignore that speech, to revile the speaker, and to view the speaker or treat his message with disdain.

The actions by disrupters, which are intended to cause inconvenience and inefficiency to others, are not “speech.” Blocking roads, highways, bridges and other public spaces is not speech. This is not “peaceable assembly,” as protected by the First Amendment. Effectively holding others hostage by limiting their ability to move about freely and to live their lives as they choose should not be protected actions.

Those actions are not intended to convey any “message” other than extortion. The objectives are not reasoned debate, informed agreement or beneficial consensus. The objectives of such protesters, disrupters and rioters are to cause pain, harm and loss to others. In effect, the message is, “We will cause more pain, harm and loss to you and yours unless you capitulate, surrender and subjugate yourselves to our self-serving will.”

They are extortionists, and one should never give in to extortion. There may be a natural and rational desire to buy one’s peace, but one cannot succeed in buying a lasting peace. The price of each moment of peace becomes increasingly exorbitant to the point of being cost prohibitive if not unconscionable.

Having profited from their bad acts, extortionists become emboldened, and others similarly situated are encouraged to follow suit. They are motivated to make increasingly unreasonable demands for an increasingly fleeting peace. The costs for an unsatisfying peace increase until there is nothing left to give or surrender, or until the targets of the extortion commit to defending themselves and to protecting their interests against those who are determined to make life difficult and burdensome for others.

We cannot concede unless we are prepared to surrender everything. And we should not expect those, who wish to be our masters, to be benevolent and benign.

Wesley Casteen is an attorney and CPA, practicing law in Wilmington. He is the author of a book series, Musings of a Southern Lawyer. This first appeared in the Carolina Journal.