This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 20, 2020.
Former Charlottesville, Va., Mayor Michael Signer’s essay “How Free Speech Dogma Failed Us in Charlottesville” (Review, March 14) pins the blame in the wrong place. The violence wasn’t a failure of the First Amendment; it was a failure of government.
An independent report on the 2017 protests, which ended in tragedy, used the word “failure” many times. Each instance cited a way government bungled how it handled its planning or response. Some of the sharpest criticisms in the report aimed at the city council, which interfered in key operational decisions. It tried to move the rally, despite correct warnings a move “was likely to be struck down by courts.” Planning by police “was inadequate and disconnected.” One thing the report didn’t blame was the First Amendment.
Most local governments prevent violence at protests and protect free speech. As the report concluded, “in addressing large political protests City officials . . . must both protect public safety and facilitate free expression.”