Anti-Semitic rhetoric in Wausau tests limits of free speech

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 6:50 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - In the last month, the Wausau Police Department has received multiple calls from concerned citizens. They’re calling about a person on the 400 Block who is giving anti-Semitic speeches about Jewish people. The Wausau Police Department is aware but says they are careful not to infringe on the person’s freedom of speech.

UW-Stevens Point political science professor John Blakeman says this is a dilemma we as a society will always face. In his classes, his students will often debate the limits of free speech.

“Students absolutely disagree, and that’s good. That’s a good thing,” says Blakeman.

It’s a topic that can become heated very quickly.

“Whether we like it or not, and we don’t, hate speech is typically protected by the First Amendment,” says Blakeman.

The amendment gives us the individual right to express ourselves and makes sure the government can’t censor speech. But it does have limits.

“So if you’re shouting on a street corner at 4 a.m., that’s when public disorder laws start to kick in. But the government cannot regulate the content of your expression. And so that’s a very important distinction that people don’t always understand,” said Blakeman.

Blakeman explains specific case laws relating to free speech make it complicated. While hate speech is part of free speech and is protected by the First Amendment, he says there can be consequences.

“Anti-Semitic speech can lead to very violent outcomes that we as a society and the government want to prohibit,” says Blakeman.

But the First Amendment prohibits us from intervening early on from stopping it. So the question then remains, what can community members do?

“So one of the ways you limit anti-Semitic speech, you stop listening to it, And then society censors the person who speaks it. That person finds himself or herself ostracized by the rest of us,” said Blakeman.

But this is difficult for those directly affected.

“Tell a Jewish person who attends a synagogue to just ignore it. Because I don’t think they will, and I don’t think they should,” says Blakeman.

Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler from Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau believes when someone shares offensive and hurtful statements that are incorrect, that’s crossing the realm of free speech and going into propaganda. He also adds that it can hurt Wausau’s image.