The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The alt-right manipulates free-speech rights. We should defend those rights anyway.

The First Amendment remains a powerful tool for social justice.

Richard Spencer is a leader of the alt-right. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

“Free speech” has become a rallying cry in the past few years for groups that want to advance racist and sexist ideas, alt-right groups and white nationalists chief among them. Over the past year, Patriot Prayer, a far-right group supported by the “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys, has held rallies in liberal cities like Portland, Ore., Seattle and San Francisco, using the banner of free speech — claiming that its extremist views are being silenced and encouraging others spouting dangerous and objectionable ideas.

The growing association between free-speech claims and white nationalism makes it easy to see the First Amendment as too easily manipulated, or free speech as too broadly defined. But in the same Pacific Northwest towns where Patriot Prayer gathers today, union organizers once demonstrated how vital free-speech protections are to the cause of social justice, and why it’s worth defending from the warped ways that alt-right groups use it to spread violence and disorder.

The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in Chicago in 1905 (and still around today organizing some of the most exploited workers in the country, from fast-food to incarcerated workers), used street theater and soapboxing to connect with working people. Often these workers were young men in cities such as Spokane, Wash., who were heading into town to spend their paychecks or look for new jobs in the farms, fields and forests of Washington state. Job sites were far-flung, so it was necessary to reach workers when they came to town.

The Wobblies, as members of the IWW are known, focused on industrial unionism, which involved organizing workers by industries rather than by trade. They were the most inclusive labor organization of the early 20th century, seeking to organize all workers, regardless of sex, race or skill.

Wobbly organizers were often cast as outsiders and targeted by city officials, law enforcement and vigilantes. The IWW message so jeopardized business interests in the region that they used every means at their disposal, including violence, to silence them.

The first major clash occurred in Spokane in 1909. A city ordinance banned street speaking (with an exemption for religious groups like the Salvation Army), and the Wobblies, dependent on their ability to communicate with workers on the street, fought back. As soon as the person standing on the soapbox to speak was arrested, another person would take their place, until the jails were full and the courts were jammed. People were arrested for reading government reports about labor relations. They were arrested for reading the Declaration of Independence. They were arrested for speaking about their work experiences.

Spokane police crammed as many as 28 men into each six-by-eight-foot cell, and after the jail was full, they sent arrestees to two overflow facilities. Women were arrested, too. But the city ultimately couldn’t keep up with the flood of workers arriving by train, so the ordinance was dropped.

Despite this victory, the free-speech fights continued in places like San Diego in 1912, Portland in 1913, Denver in 1913 and Sioux City, Iowa, in 1915. The Wobblies won a majority of these fights because they were able to mobilize so many workers to test the free-speech bans that cities were forced to abandon their attempts to shut the Wobblies down.

The fight for freedom of speech could be violent, sometimes deadly. In 1916, the town of Everett, Wash., which had recently seen clashes between strikebreakers and striking sawmill workers, also attempted to limit the Wobblies’ ability to organize. Over several weeks of street meetings and arrests, violence escalated. One night, the sheriff took IWW organizer James Rowan outside the city limits, where he was met by a dozen or so men who beat him with clubs and bent him over a stump, whipping him more than 50 times. A photograph of Rowan’s scarred back was printed and distributed to encourage members to come to Everett.

The Wobblies persisted through it all, organizing a massive free-speech rally on Nov. 5, 1916.

The local newspaper in Everett did not feign neutrality as far as the free-speech fighters were concerned. With a headline titled “IWW Entitled to No Sympathy” the day of the rally, the paper dismissed and dehumanized the Wobblies, calling them men who “deserved all they got,” no matter how “roughly he is handled.”

Before the rally could begin, a shootout between the arriving Wobblies and deputized citizens of Everett left at least five Wobblies and two deputies dead.

For the death of one of the deputies, 76 Wobblies were arrested, but it became clear in the first defendant’s trial that there was no evidence to yield a conviction, and all the rest were released. That spring, the United States joined World War I. As pro-war patriotism reached a fever pitch, the Wobblies continued to strike in war industries such as the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. They were seen as un-American, and membership in the union became a crime under Washington state’s criminal syndicalism laws.

In the century since the Wobblies gathered in Everett, free-speech rights have dramatically expanded. The government faces far more restraints on its ability to limit speech. Perhaps that accounts for why the state so readily protects the speech rights of white nationalists when it so eagerly suppressed the same rights of organizers. Or perhaps the government does not find white nationalists as threatening as it does the power of organized working people.

The capacity of free-speech rights to protect activists can be a source of real frustration when the speech is used to promote division and inequality. But as the IWW showed, free-speech rights also have the ability to amplify the voices of those who seek to mobilize against white supremacy and capitalism. Just as the Wobblies relied on the First Amendment to resist injustice in the past, so, too, can it be mobilized to do the same today.