County Council Chair John Grasso Is Wrong on Freedom of Speech

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Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso Shouts down Yasmin Jameson who testifies about Michael Peroutka's history in a White Supremacy organization. Photo: Anne Arundel County
John Grasso shouts down Yasmin Jameson as she attempted to testify about Michael Peroutka's League of the South membership. Photo: Anne Arundel County

Council Chairman John Grasso believes there is a double standard applied to freedom of speech: liberals can say what they want; conservatives can’t.

“When the liberals come out and they say what they want to say, and whatever hurtful thing that they say, whatever they say, they use the word of “freedom of speech.” Well when the conservatives come out and say anything, it’s suddenly “hate speech.” You know what I mean. It’s divisive. It’s racism. It’s homophobia. It’s everything. And the problem in our world today is that the liberals in our world today can do whatever they want . . . cuss on TV at the college kids. Nobody says anything. Deny people from coming out to the colleges and speak that are conservative. All that’s okay. But the minute a Republican turns around and says the liberal says something, oh heck, they can cuss at their constituents like you saw on TV. The one senator cussing at the college kids saying the F-word. That’s acceptable. And it’s okay. Like I said, they shut the colleges down and not let that one guy come out and speak about it. That’s acceptable. But now when they want to say something and someone says something about their hatred or their divisiveness, oh now, it’s freedom of speech. I get to that county council meeting and I got to really see a real clear picture how it’s okay for one side but it’s not okay for the other side.”

—John Grasso commenting on the June 5, 2017 Anne Arundel County Council meeting, from “A Conversation with John Grasso,” recorded 13 June 2017 by WNAV

To make his point, Grasso referenced an incident when a speaker he labeled “conservative” was prevented from speaking on a college campus. There have been a few similar incidents this year, so I don’t know which one he meant. In February, for example, Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech was canceled at Berkeley due to violent protests. Anne Coulter canceled a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in April “because she lost the backing of conservative groups that had initially sponsored her appearance.” That same month, a federal judge stepped in to prevent Auburn College from canceling Richard Spencer’s speech.

Together, these three speakers have expressed hostility toward just about every group of people imaginable—with the exception of conservative, straight, cisgender, American-born, white Christians. I would not label these speakers conservatives; I would label them hatemongers. Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, has said, “Never feel bad for mocking a transgender person. It is our job to point out their absurdity, to not make the problem worse by pretending they are normal.” Anne Coulter’s view is that “there’s a cultural acceptance of child rape in Latino culture that doesn’t exist in even the most dysfunctional American ghettos.” And Richard Spencer’s vision is “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans.”

The First Amendment notwithstanding, there are limitations on freedom of speech. For example, you can’t stand up at a rally and urge a crowd to commit murder. Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Spencer, however, fall into a gray area. While their rhetoric can no doubt lead to harm, the courts have not generally interpreted their speech as being tantamount to calling for criminal action. So they can say what they want to say.

I can understand why many people, not just liberals, want to try to stop Yiannopoulos, Coulter, Spencer, and their ilk from speaking. They endanger not only the rights but also the lives of anyone who is not conservative, straight, cisgender, American-born, white, and Christian. Because I am not straight, Christian, or conservative, I take this personally. Nevertheless, I do agree with Mr. Grasso that these people should be allowed to speak on college campuses.

I am a hardliner on the First Amendment. As much as I abhor speech that foments hatred and violence, it’s a slippery slope when we decide who can say what. I’d rather these hateful people have their say, and then others, hopefully many of us, can respond. Eventually a more compassionate and inclusive viewpoint should prevail—but  sadly, at this point in U.S. history, I don’t see that happening.

During the WNAV interview, Grasso seemed very upset that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand used the “F-word” when speaking at New York University’s Personal Democracy Forum on June 9, as if it were the exclusive domain of liberals. I would like to draw Mr. Grasso’s attention to this 2011 video of Donald Trump addressing a rally in Las Vegas. His language is peppered with the F-word and other swear words. Personally, I don’t care that either of these people use vulgar language, but let’s not pretend that only liberals curse, Mr. Grasso.

I would also remind Mr. Grasso that while liberals have at times sought to prevent conservative speech, conservatives also have sought to prevent liberal speech. For example, some states, including Texas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, have passed legislation that limits doctors’ free speech in counseling woman on abortion. States and school boards have also placed limitations on how teachers may present evolutionary theory, forcing them to give equal weight to so-called “intelligent” design, although scientific evidence overwhelmingly validates the concept of evolution. Lastly, at least 20 states have passed laws since Trump’s election to muzzle citizens’ right to protest.

In addition, Mr. Grasso does not understand the difference between hate speech and speaking out against hate. Those he termed “liberals” came to the June 5 County Council meeting to speak out against perpetrators of violent, racist acts and proponents of racist ideology. Moreover, they expressed concern over Councilman Peroutka’s long-term affiliation with the white-supremacist League of the South. They did not express hatred or divisiveness but rather argued for a more compassionate worldview that embraces diversity on all levels, including race, gender, sexuality, religion, and immigration status.

What I find most disturbing is that Grasso believes conservatives’ freedom of speech was violated at the June 5 County Council meeting, when in fact the opposite is true. At that meeting, Grasso violated the First Amendment rights of three Anne Arundel County citizens—Peter Cane, Yasemin Jamison, and Victoria Bruce—by silencing their testimony. Cane and Jamison wanted to address Councilman Michael Peroutka’s League of the South membership, and Bruce brought up Peroutka’s introduction of a resolution to stop the Maryland Senate from passing immigrant protection legislation. The issues were clearly relevant to the anti-racism resolution which was before the Council that evening. Peroutka’s election to the County Council not only serves as evidence that racism exists in our county; it also sends a message that racist ideology is tolerated.

Cane, Jamison, and Bruce were the only three citizens at the County Council meeting who were silenced. While it was evident some members in the audience were disturbed by testimony presented by people who Grasso would clearly label “conservatives,” they were not silenced. Instead, they were allowed to, and in fact did, give their testimony in full.

The Capital Gazette wrote an editorial on the June 5 County Council meeting, noting that “Grasso went over the line, twisting the rules to bar remarks that might embarrass Councilman Michael Peroutka.” At that meeting, Grasso cited Appendix A, Section 4-106 of the County Code, which prohibits “personal” and “defamatory” remarks, to defend his decision to silence testimony. However, Peroutka’s membership in the League of the South is neither personal nor defamatory. It is a fact. Moreover, because County Council meetings are “designated public forums,” Grasso does not have the right to censure citizens on any viewpoint they’d like to bring before the Council.

Interestingly, at the next County Council meeting on June 19, Peroutka himself commented on his membership in the League of the South. According to Peroutka, during his tenure with that organization, “I believed the group to be integrated and non-discriminatory with regard to race, and my recollection of topics that were discussed in my presence concerned objections to overreaching and intrusive policies and programs of the federal government; they did not focus on race.”

First, Peroutka’s comments are nonsense. The League of the South’s primary mission since its founding in 1994 has been the secession of the South and the creation of a Southern government led by and for white Christians. They have never made a secret of this goal. It is eminently clear through the League’s ample writings, which are available on their website, as well as in the many speeches of their founder and president, Michael Hill, which can be accessed via YouTube. Peroutka’s alleged ignorance of the League of the South’s racist mission is tantamount to a Nazi party member claiming he was unaware the Nazis were anti-Semitic.

Second, by discussing his membership in the League of the South, Peroutka himself negates Grasso’s argument that the topic is “personal” or “defamatory.” After all, Peroutka wouldn’t defame himself in a public forum. Moreover, Peroutka obviously does not consider his membership to be a personal matter. If he did, he wouldn’t discuss it in a public forum. In short, Peroutka himself has opened the door to public comment—and we should comment.

Based on my research of the First Amendment and consultation with constitutional law experts, Grasso is in clear violation of the First Amendment. Simply because he can cite examples in which liberals allegedly violated conservatives’ freedom of speech does not give him license to silence what he perceives to be liberal speech.

I urge citizens to continue to speak up about Peroutka’s membership in the League of the South, as unanswered questions remain. Why did Peroutka join the League, and why did he leave? Does the racist ideology that he embraced by joining still influence his decisions on the County Council? Grasso should comply with the First Amendment to enable citizens to raise these issues at County Council meetings. And Peroutka should, once and for all, answer these questions honestly.

Final Note: Please listen to Grasso’s full interview, recorded by WNAV, so that you can hear him unedited in his own words. Moreover, please listen to the testimonies concerning the anti-racism resolution put before the County Council on June 5. The relevant portion of the proceedings begins around 54:00.

Eric Graber is a semi-retired marketing communications professional from Anne Arundel County who has reluctantly been drawn into the resistance movement. He dedicates as much time as possible to painting, exploring various movements in modern art.

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Eric Graber is a semi-retired marketing communications professional who has reluctantly been drawn into the resistance movement. He dedicates as much time as possible to painting, exploring various movements in modern art.