Writing about the establishment of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error as long as reason is left free to combat it.” Less than two centuries later, a demonstration in Charlottesville is being used to justify a crackdown on free speech, under the guise of preventing terrorism.
Virginia House Bill No. 1601 calls for the state of Virginia to create an official list of “domestic terrorist organizations,” defined as any “group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which has an identifiable name or identifying sign of symbol” and which either has as one of its “primary objectives” the commission of an act of domestic terrorism or “whose members individually or collectively have engaged in the commission of, attempt to commit, conspiracy to commit, or solicitation of two or more acts domestic terrorism . . . .”
It defines domestic terrorism as a violent act that aims to intimidate or instill fear in someone because of their race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability, or to stop a person from pursuing their constitutional rights. It goes further to provide that giving aid to such groups or simply meeting with members to further certain objectives could meet with stiff prison sentences — true guilt by association.
The bill was introduced by Delegate Marcia Price (who wants to be called “Cia”) of Virginia’s 95th District. She is the daughter of Newport News Mayor MicKinley Price and niece of Congressman Bobby Scott. Delegate Price once worked for the NAACP, started the “Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative” and was state chair for the successful Ralph Northam campaign. Her career shows the permeable boundaries between black identity politics, non-governmental organizations, and the modern Democrat party.
The head of the Fairfax County NAACP, Kofi Annan, explained that had the bill been law, it could have prevented last August’s “Unite the Right” rally by banning the organizations that took part. “These groups went there, armed, with the intention of terrorizing the neighborhood,” Mr. Annan said, adding, “These groups often don’t get labeled ‘terrorists,’ they get labeled ‘hate groups,’ which is more protected, under the Constitution.”
Both “terrorist” and “hate group” are subjective categories. A terrorist becomes a terrorist when he commits a violent crime in order to support a political cause, not because he crosses some ideological line. “Hate group” is a category, popularized by the SPLC to increase fundraising, but does not mean anything in particular. The SPLC calls the Nation of Islam a “hate group” but that did not stop Barack Obama or Keith Ellison from meeting with its leaders, nor Maxine Waters from attending the group’s conference and even being recognized from the stage during a Louis Farrakhan speech in which, among other things, he defended suicide bombers.
By political standards, that was guilt by association, though not by legal standards. The danger of this kind of a bill is that the government would have a great deal of leeway to determine what is a “terrorist” group and who is a member, and guilt by association could become legal doctrine.
Thus, the ACLU, after denouncing “white supremacy,” opposed the bill, with its executive director saying, “[I]t raises significant constitutional concerns and would entrench in Virginia a framework that has been used at the federal level to target minority communities for discriminatory investigation, surveillance, and prosecution — and makes it worse by creating a new, overly-broad category of ‘domestic terrorist organizations’.”
The bill does assure us that “nothing in this section shall be construed or applied so as to abridge the exercise of rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States or Article I, § 12 of the Constitution of Virginia.” Yet like every other right Americans once took for granted, this is purely at the discretion of the courts, and we know that academics, journalists, and activists are busily laying the legal groundwork for considering “hate speech” to be “violence.”
The proposed law prescribes prison sentences for anyone who meets “with the intent of advancing some unlawful goal, mission, or purpose of the domestic terrorist organization” — legalese based on that which is designed to combat gang recruiting. But as one University of Richmond law professor observed, there’s no state law making it illegal for three or more gang members to meet, making this even more stringent. And since Kofi Annan seems to believe the proposed law would have prohibited the Unite the Right rally, an “unlawful goal, mission, or purpose” could be interpreted very broadly.
Perhaps for that reason, Daryl Johnson, writing at the SPLC, hails the domestic terrorism list as “particularly progressive” but “controversial.”
Not surprisingly, he supports the plan, calling it: “[A] worthwhile cause and an honest attempt to do what’s right for Virginians. At this time, any legislative reform to address the growing threat of domestic terrorism is very much welcomed, appreciated, and needed.”
Mr. Johnson appears to support “any” legislative reform that will let the police arrest people he doesn’t like. This is especially true when the very group responsible for designating “domestic terrorist organizations” — the Virginia State Police (VSP) — was found to be partially responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. It was the VSP that broke up the demonstration and, over the protests of demonstrators, funneled them into the ranks of antifa, ensuring a bloody melee.
There’s nothing inherently violent about a demonstration. In the months since Charlottesville, groups such as the Traditionalist Workers Party and the League of the South have held events and demonstrations largely without incident, with both demonstrators and “anti-racist” counter-demonstrators having their say as police kept them apart. It would be a strange response to the VSP’s incompetence to reward it by giving it more power.
Indeed, the only reason the police were needed at all in Charlottesville, was because antifa groups wanted to break up the rally violently. One proposed reason for an act to be considered “domestic terrorism” is for it to be “for the purpose of restraining [people] from exercising [their] rights under the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or the United States.” The only group that met that definition in Charlottesville that day was antifa.
Kofi Annan of the Fairfax County NAACP, evidently referring to the militia groups who attended Unite the Right, complained they were armed. Yet, as the independent report ordered by the city confirmed, the militia groups were neutral. Indeed, rank and file police officers seemed to regard the militia members’ conduct as exemplary. “Alt-Right” demonstrators themselves mostly carried shields, not weapons, the better to defend against bottles and other projectiles thrown by violent leftists.
The most prominent armed group was “Redneck Revolt,” an antifa organization whose armed counter-demonstrations at dissident events have become its trademark. And unlike the militia groups, whose stated intent was to guarantee the exercise of constitutional rights, the very purpose for which antifa groups even exist is to prevent those rights from being exercised.
The main act of violence in Charlottesville was, of course, the death of Heather Heyer after she was allegedly hit by James Fields. Professor Dwayne Dixon, a member of Redneck Revolt, admits he menaced James Fields with a rifle before the fatal accident. This further supports the view that the chaos and violence of Charlottesville was created by antifa and enabled by local law enforcement, not by the demonstrators.
If this law was passed and objectively applied, it would be antifa who would be declared domestic terrorists and prohibited from meeting. After all, it is that group which most qualifies under the proposed legislation as “terrorists,” given the record of criminality of many individual activists and the group’s explicitly declared purpose of using violence to prevent the exercise of constitutional rights. It’s unclear whether the law’s proponents have considered this. But, unfortunately, we can’t count on the government objectively to enforce such a law, especially as the law’s leftist proponents specifically speak of the legislation’s goal of shutting down groups they don’t like.
This law would be a target on the back of every white activist, even those who disavow lawlessness. American Renaissance was accused of nonexistent links to murderer Jared Loughner based on a sloppy, inaccurate memo from Arizona’s Counter Terrorism Information Center. And even though American Renaissance had nothing to do with the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, it was a victim of the mass deplatforming that immediately followed. Such guilt by association has long been practiced by such lefty organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center, but is more ominous when adopted by internet companies and payments processors. When ostensible law enforcement professionals and lawmakers start using these tactics, they become positively dangerous.
The danger is compounded when, as noted above, it has become fashionable to insist that “hate speech” is a form of violence and should therefore be considered a crime. The proposed law requires that a group be “violent” for it to be guilty of “domestic terrorism.” But since violence is already against the law, there is no obvious need for new legislation unless it is to adopt the increasingly fashionable view that dissident speech is the equivalent of “violence.” This would be the first step towards classifying American Renaissance — and its readers — as nothing less than domestic terrorists.
Using the law explicitly for the purpose of shutting down dissident groups is a hallmark of tyranny. And the real lesson of Charlottesville is not that the right of free speech is about to be formally abolished, but that Americans can no longer trust law enforcement to protect it or journalists to defend it. To hand arbitrary power to the government to designate “terrorists” based on ideological considerations is more than just an affront to the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the other great Virginians who bequeathed us a free country. It’s a serious threat to what’s left of American liberty.