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Our Opinion: 'Shut them up’ no better than ‘Send her back’

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President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville last week showed extreme positions on the right and left continue to edge away from the fringes and creep toward the center.

Swift condemnation followed the crowd’s chant of “Send her back” directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat the president has criticized. Omar was born in Somalia and became a U.S. citizen. Critics on the left are correct that calls for her deportation are odious and un-American.

Equally troubling is the haste with which some of Trump’s detractors decided to shoot the messenger, wrongly holding East Carolina University responsible for the crowd’s chant and the president’s words. Many students, alumni and community members say ECU should have denied Trump and his supporters a platform by refusing to rent the Minges Coliseum to the Trump campaign.

That, of course, would have been unlawful. East Carolina is a public university, and as a government institution, it can’t discriminate on the basis of viewpoint against either guest speakers invited by student groups or political campaigns seeking to rent its facilities. Doing so would violate the First Amendment and may also run afoul of North Carolina’s 2017 campus free speech law.

Conservatives have a problem with nativism and nationalism in their ranks. Liberals have a problematic impulse to embrace censorship and de-platforming. Neither of these extreme positions is healthy for American democracy.

CITIZENSHIP AND IDENTITY

The groundwork for the Greenville chant was laid July 14 when Trump tweeted that a group of four progressive Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad” should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” before tackling domestic reform.

In the quartet of lawmakers, only Omar is foreign-born. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashid Tlaib of Michigan were all born in the United States. Critics, commentators and mainstream media outlets labeled the tweet racist.

Trump tried to pivot away from targeting critics based on their ethnicity. At the Greenville rally, he refined his message to a more generic “love it or leave it,” which could apply to any American. If you don’t like the United States, he suggests, why not try your luck somewhere else? That view conflates constructive criticism meant to improve one’s home country with being anti-American, but so long as it’s broad enough to include everybody, it’s not inherently racist.

Supporters broke out in a spontaneous refrain of “Send her back” after Trump listed a litany of complaints about Omar, including her past anti-Semitic statements.

The error of “Send her back” is that too many conservatives see Omar’s citizenship as conditional and revocable. People who profess to love the United States must understand that naturalized citizens are just as American as those born here. In the land of opportunity where anyone can share in the American dream, there is no difference. Anyone who says otherwise is misguided at best and nativist at worst.

CENSORSHIP AND SUPPRESSION

The prevailing wisdom on the “woke” left that the way to stamp out offensive speech is to impose political correctness tests and censor anyone who flunks by refusing him or her a platform is authoritarian, illiberal and contrary to Enlightenment values. Principled liberals must refute this notion.

“We encourage and welcome civil discourse on our campus,” ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach and other administrators said in a Friday letter. “The U.S. Constitution allows the intellectual and individual freedom of expression that enables us to live our mission. These freedoms do not protect the right to hear and listen to only what is convenient and agreeable but do protect the right to be able to respond and express one’s own views. We will facilitate such conversations on the campus in the fall.”

East Carolina is wise to point out that there’s no such thing as the right to silence those with whom you disagree. We applaud ECU for using the controversy as an opportunity to broaden understanding of free speech.

Both the right and the left need a limiting principle. For the former, love of country and pride in citizenship are admirable, but nativism and distrust of foreign-born Americans is unacceptable. For the latter, denouncing opponents’ message is fine, but silencing them is not. The remedy for bad speech is more speech, not suppression.

“Shut them up” and “Send her back” are both un-American messages. Let’s abandon them.

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