People with Your Politics are Not Welcome Here

This past week, there was an altercation at a gym. A woman began loudly criticizing a man because of his political views. She recognized him as a public figure, and exercised her free speech rights to let him know what she thinks about his views. I admire that. We have all been called upon to exercise our free speech rights more lately, and that’s a good thing.

But what happened next is weird: the gym revoked the man’s membership. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. He was just working out, and not causing any fuss. The gym is a private organization, and can deny membership to anyone they want, unless they are shown to be discriminating against protected categories. So they were within their rights. But this doesn’t feel right to me.

OK, I guess I need to tell you now that the man was Richard Spencer, the person who coined the term “alt-right.” The woman was loudly telling him that he was a Nazi, which indeed he is. Does that make you feel any differently about the story?

I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I remember the first time I learned about the ACLU: I was 11, and the Nazi party planned a march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. My parents explained what the ACLU was and why they were defending the Nazis’ right to march. I remember being puzzled and having to think quite a while before I concluded that the ACLU was right. The remedy for offensive speech is not censorship but more speech. We need to be there with more people and bigger signs saying this is not OK.

I guess I don’t blame the gym owners — would you want to be known as the Nazi gym? But it’s a slippery slope. Who else has politics that aren’t acceptable? Shall we make a list?

A friend posted an account of all this online saying that it’s a “feel good story.” Wow, this does not make me feel good. It’s sad all around.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.

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