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Lawyers Discuss First Amendment Rights, White Supremacy at Forum

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The Jefferson School hosted a panel of three lawyers on Aug. 8 The Jefferson School hosted a panel of three lawyers on Aug. 8
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

Charlottesville lawyers and social justice activists are reflecting on last year's violence, looking ahead to the upcoming anniversary weekend, and discussing the role the First Amendment plays in all of it.

Three Charlottesville lawyers addressed more than 80 people at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on Wednesday, August 8.

They weighed in on how they think the First Amendment unfairly protects white supremacy.

“Just in the past year, we've seen a variety of examples in which the term ‘free speech’ or the abstract concept of free speech has worked to the advantage of white supremacists and against anti-racist activists,” Ben Doherty, a research historian at the University of Virginia’s law school, said.

A trio of lawyers from the UVA law school and Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) agree that free speech can protect white supremacists while also limiting how social justice activists protest.

One example they pointed to was the KKK rally that took place in Charlottesville last July.

“The police gave them full protection, they allowed them to come in and park in a local garage, have their demonstration all under full police protection in the name of free speech,” Doherty said.

These Charlottesville lawyers feel that white nationalists are being given too much protection and leeway by law enforcement.

“These white supremacist groups are not engaging in speech in any way; white supremacy has always been enforced through violence,” Doherty said.

They add that the term "free speech" is being too loosely interpreted.

“The very concept of free speech is misplaced, and is used instead to allow these terrorist organizations to continue doing what they're doing and prevents anti-racists from trying to stop them,” Doherty said.

“Nazis carrying burning torches, threatening and physically attacking people, that is conduct under anyone's definition,” Anne Coughlin, a law professor at UVA, said.

These attorneys say that until there is a shift in interpretation of free speech, white supremacists will continue to justify their actions under the First Amendment.

“The reason I think they do that is, rhetorically, they want the frame to be that they are a marginalized, oppressed group that is being silenced,” Kim Rolla, an attorney with the LAJC, said.

If white supremacists come to Charlottesville for the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally this weekend, these lawyers encouraged people to not just sit at home but rather to exercise their own First Amendment rights and stand their ground.

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