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Donald Trump's Free Speech Is Not Threatened, So Please Just Shut Up

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in the atrium of the Old Post Office Pavilion,
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in the atrium of the Old Post Office Pavilion, soon to be a Trump International Hotel, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Every few years, in reaction to powerful protest among progressives, some well-meaning but queasy liberal columnists and commentators get all bent out of shape about such protests. They fret that the protest is "illiberal" -- a favored buzz word of both center-left and center-right pundits -- and they then lecture and chastise people from behind their computer screens in their New York and Washington offices, worried about the shutting down of free speech or fearful the protests are counterproductive.

These commentators are often smart, interesting and useful on a variety of issues, so I'm not judging the entirety of their work. They're simply knee-jerk and tedious on this one. This impulse to criticize protests is often (but not always) connected to their ongoing war on so-called "political correctness" on the left -- an obsession for some of them -- which itself often stems from the fact that most speak as white males of a certain education level and class, blinded to the experience of people with less privilege. And oh, they will hate that I said that.

But here's the deal: People who are protesting Donald Trump's events are not infringing on his First Amendment rights or his speech in any way. If Donald Trump decides to shut down his events (because of his own reckless past speech and what it has inspired in his followers) that is his choice. Government is not shutting down his speech, nor is anyone else. And if the protesters take delight in that, that is their choice. But they have not stopped him from speaking or exercising his speech -- even if they believe they did.

When Trump canceled his event in Chicago two weekends ago, most of the aggressive action in the street afterward came from his own angry supporters coming out of the forum. Sure, there were a few among the anti-Trump crowd outside engaging in behavior that itself was aggressive. This is not protest; there are always a few such people at protests and they should be distanced. They're wrong, just as the guy who darted for Trump on stage at one Ohio event was wrong and was righty arrested. But they don't represent the majority of the peaceful protesters by any stretch, who've chanted or who've held up signs and have been willingly carted away.

Donald Trump has more free speech than almost anyone on the planet right now -- and it is literally free. One analysis by The New York Times determined that Trump received $1.9 billion worth of free publicity (dwarfing every other candidate), much of it from television networks which have bowed to his every whim and let him call in at any time of day to rant on about whatever the hell he wants to rant on about. As Jim Rutenberg noted in the Times, he is, by the networks' own admission, ratings gold for them, and they're only too happy to give the mic in return for the dollars he brings in. As Les Moonvies, the CBS chairman, said, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. ... This is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

As much as people think Donald Trump will usher in fascism, I have some news for you: Our system is already a bit fascistic, as the almighty dollar seems to have its own formula for that. The protesters -- everyday people not paid by any interest groups -- are not invited onto television talk shows to challenge Trump. Even people who represent them from such groups are given short shrift on TV news. There's no ratings bonanza in that, so the system marginalizes them completely. In an authoritarian fascist state, the government-run media would simply ban them from television. But in America, dollars and ratings are what keep them far away from the TV studios.

So, the protesters are going where the action is to give the networks the theater and spectacle they crave to help keep their ratings soaring. It's completely demented that they have to walk into the lion's den of a Trump rally and put their lives in danger, but it's the only way they get to speak. It's the only way they can seize the media with a message that Trump is dangerous and people aren't standing for it.

I did the same thing 25 years ago, as a protester in the AIDS activist group ACT UP. We stormed the headquarters of the foot-dragging Food and Drug Administration, and a few windows even broke in the process (no one was hurt and this happened mostly from overzealous police). We shouted down politicians at their events, Republican and Democrat, who had made horrendous comments about gay people and people with AIDS, words as vile as those Trump is making now about other minorities -- and we, too, faced the violence of their handlers, supporters and law enforcement. We went into St. Patricks Cathedral and disrupted a service by then Cardinal O'Connor; protesters were carried out on stretchers, engaging in civil disobedience. I even once jumped on a platform at another venue and shouted down a visiting Vatican envoy, Cardinal Ratzinger -- yes, who would go on to become Pope Benedict -- who had called homosexuality "intrinsically disordered" and whose church told governments to discriminate against LGBT people. I was handcuffed and carted away with other protesters, and most assuredly Ratzinger's speech went on -- but our speech made the front pages of the newspapers the next day too.

We faced the same attacks and worse from both liberals and conservatives in the media, called "fascists" and "Stalinists" for supposedly shutting down "free speech." It was as knee-jerk and ridiculous then as it is now. What motivated us was simple: People were dying and no one gave a damn because those people were part of a despised minority. Desperate times called for desperate measures. We managed to help alter the course of history by using such tactics, as protest movements often do.

We knew what the protesters at the Trump rallies know, intuitively or not: The only way you get attention when you are a minority group under attack is if you are brave enough to put your body on the line and give the media a show, as impassioned and sincere as you are. This is something that white male columnists of a certain class really do not get because they don't know that experience of marginalization. This seems to lead them to believe everyone's on the same playing field when it comes to access to the levers of mass media. It may be because they can exercise their speech simply writing more columns well-placed in prime media real estate, and don't seem to comprehend that most people do not have that privilege.

When the protesters go to Trump's events they are attending an event open to the public, and they know full well that they will be ejected and possibly arrested when they disrupt the event. And Trump has every right to have them removed for disrupting the event, and have the event go on.

What no one has a right to do, however, is to physically attack the protesters, egged on by Trump and his calls to violence. And when that does happen it is not the protesters who are to blame. If critics want to argue that the protesters should have better sense in order to avoid violence than to go to Trump's events, then they better go after the media for shutting the dissenters out and giving Trump non-stop attention for his heinous views.

Because without any ability to speak in the media, those who oppose Trump can't just let Trump's words go unchecked. They must do what it takes to get the message out, because, again, desperate times call for desperate measures.

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