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SINGH: Events in Oregon call for crucial discussions

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Oregon was created as a white-only refuge, with a constitution that forbade black residents until 1926. Decades later, there is a statewide increase in racist vandalism and offensive comments, but authorities are struggling to answer the question: Where do you draw the line between the freedom of speech and hate speech?

In October 2002, a Friday night service at Temple Beth Israel synagogue in Oregon, went awry when rocks with carved swastikas were thrown through stained-glass windows. There were 80 people in attendance and what they witnessed was emotionally traumatizing, and said that it was most shocking hate crime in the region in years. For this crime, five members of a white supremacist group were charged — the most prominent member being Jacob Laskey, who served 11 years in prison. When he got out in late 2015, he returned to a society that was far more receptive to his ideology. Across the nation, there had been many instances of hate crimes, such as bomb threats to Sikh and Jewish temples, the burning of mosques and more recently, the shooting of minority men by their white counterparts who demand them to leave the country.

In recent months, many Jewish and Muslim organizations have taken precautionary measures to protect them from possible violence by practicing evacuation drills, boarding up windows and calling up the local law enforcement. But the organizations were not ready for the wave of vandalism and legal hate speech that has slowly started washing over America. The increase in such acts spiked upward after the 2017 presidential elections, as white supremacists have started coming out and voicing their opinions more openly. Oregon, in particular, is on the deep side of the receiving end as it has strong ties to racist ideology.

Oregon was home to more Ku Klux Klan members per capita than any other state. Over time, things got quieter and there was a lull in the hate crimes and attacks — until the election. Nazi stickers appeared on courthouses when protests against President Donald J. Trump's ban erupted. A resident of the state, Max Gordon, who has a mezuzah on his front door, woke up in the midst of the rallies to find a massive swastika drawn in the snow on his lawn. Citizens have found supremacy flyers at school board meetings, whereas others have found disturbing messages, such as, "We're watching you," and "Anne Frank's oven," were written on public property in many locations in Portland.

Randy Blazak, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon who studies white nationalist groups said, “I have never seen them so emboldened, they feel there is something of a green light to express their previously hidden political beliefs.”

These acts of low-level vandalism fall in a murky gray area compared to high-profile crimes such as shootings, which clearly fall into homicide and felony assault. While the residents feel helpless to the ever-increasing hate speech, authorities are caught between attempting to protect the people and their duty to follow the constitution, more particularly the First Amendment. Free speech is a right to express any thoughts or opinions without restraint. Hate speech, on the other hand, is when people attack and offend a particular group by saying offensive slurs. Now some would argue that since we are all protected under the First Amendment, we should be able to engage in a healthy debate where we should be all inclusive and welcoming of different thoughts and worldviews. So if your hate speech doesn't sit well with a group, then that group has the right to critique your comments, as everyone is entitled to their own opinions. For example, if you were a television host and said something offensive, the network provider has every right to cut you out. You won't be thrown in prison and you still are free to express your views elsewhere. The network provider has the right to deny your views on their channel if you say hateful rhetoric, and they disagree with those views. 

This brings up another important question. Where do we draw this line? The line should be drawn when genuine harmful comments are passed.There is a difference between finding a swastika in a public place, versus finding one outside someone's home, or at a synagogue, where it's a more direct threat. In a society where everything is becoming more public and easier to spread thoughts and ideas, it’s crucial that individuals take more responsibility for their actions. This means that we all need to be better judges in discerning the difference between not banning free speech, but also not advocating hate speech. In the end, if you would like to promote something offensive and hurtful, then don’t be irate and upset when you are shut down by those who don’t want to hear it.

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Mondays.

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