Our View: Free speech and public safety - let's talk
Many Portlanders felt a familiar pain over the weekend as news spread of the white supremacist-fueled violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
An attack in Charlottesville, where a sick-minded white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, recalled memories of another nationally publicized attack in Portland earlier this year. In that case, an equally disturbed man with a history of racist statements stabbed three people on a MAX train after he had verbally abused two black women, one of them apparently Muslim.
Portland, meanwhile, has been the site of white supremacist marches — and counter protests — similar to the one in Charlottesville on Saturday. It may not be a coincidence that Portland and Charlottesville are targeted by hateful people. Both are cities that, despite racist pasts, have a strong current reputation for tolerance. White supremacists and neo-Nazi groups that want to incite resistance to their ideas and invite the potential for violence know they will get maximum opportunity in places like Portland and Charlottesville.
The other common denominator is that both places have struggled with how to balance free speech against public safety. Portland has been fortunate that protests and counter protests haven't resulted in fatalities, but certainly there has been violence and property damage.
In late May, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called on federal officials to pull the permit of an alt-right group planning a rally at a federally owned downtown park. That request, while understandable, was rightly denied.
Similarly, less than a week before the long-planned alt-right rally in Charlottesville, city officials tried to move the location of the protest to a larger park. A judge rejected that request, in part because the group with the permit was protesting the removal of a statue in the park where the rally was scheduled.
We are strong proponents of the First Amendment, but we sympathize with those who conclude that freedom of speech should not outweigh the right not to get plowed down by a car.
One lesson from Charlottesville and Portland is that efforts to regulate the place, time and manner of protests are difficult in the emotionally charged atmosphere of an upcoming event.
What's needed is an ongoing conversation about how to balance the desire to maintain public safety with the right to assemble and protest.
Such a conversation needs to include law enforcement officials, activists and members of the media. But it will work only if there is buy-in in from elected officials and civil rights advocates.
We're willing to join and promote such an effort if someone steps up to lead it.