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Free speech doesn’t cover Nazi-themed license plates

Free speech isn’t under attack when people speak out against the use of Nazi symbolism on government-issued license plates.

That’s not a sentence one should have to write, but we live in the idiocratic year 2021, when feigned ignorance masquerades as honest journalism and public officials find themselves doing rhetorical goose-steps to defend people who wear their love of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich like a prized lapel pin.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me catch you up.

On Friday afternoon, I was at a stoplight in Downtown Anchorage when I spotted a jaw-dropping license plate on the back of the jet-black Hummer in front of me: “3REICH.”

After doing a spit-take and giving my eyeballs time to pop back into their sockets, I grabbed my phone and took a quick picture before watching the vehicle drive away. If you’ve seen the picture and you have a soul, you might have had a similar feeling to me — a mix of disgust, bemusement, resignation, fear.

I’m not Jewish. I was raised in the Catholic faith, which is Catholic code for “I still know the prayers but don’t go to church.” So the fear I felt was in a more abstract sense, the type of fear that comes with the reminder there remain people in our society who would glorify genocide and hope to echo one of the most destructive events of the 20th century.

But then I called to mind members of the Alaska Jewish community, personal stories I’ve heard about the Holocaust, and my bemusement turned to nausea as I imagined the terror and anguish they’d surely be struck with were they unlucky enough to get stuck behind that black Hummer. It pissed me off.

So I did what anyone my age does when we get triggered: I went to Twitter and I posted the photo of the license plate, along with the caption “I hate Alaska Nazis.” As you have probably heard by now, the tweet got a lot of attention.

By the time the weekend was over, the photos I posted of the vehicle had inspired a number of comment wars, social media dunks, call-outs, think pieces, rage-retweets and even an absurd series of comments from Anchorage Assemblywoman (and now-former Alaska Human Rights Commission member) Jamie Allard, who chose to spend her weekend first defending the plates as harmless German words, then later doubling down with an epic self-own by invoking the name of former Clinton cabinet member and prominent liberal commentator Robert Reich in her struggle to defend the plates.

By Sunday, at least one Alaska blogger was comparing herself to (and misquoting) French satirist Voltaire while simultaneously distancing herself from the message on the plates and arguing that defending them was simply an attempt to salvage our imperiled First Amendment rights. The blogger later blocked anyone who disagreed with her take, perhaps an homage to Count Pococurante from Voltaire’s “Candide,” who famously said, “for my part, I read only to please myself, and enjoy only what suits my taste.”

On Monday, state officials affirmed that the offensive plates are — as we all knew — offensive, with Alaska Department of Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka saying they’d already been recalled.

“The Alaska DMV has strict guidelines and protocols for issuing personalized license plates, which prohibit references to violence, drugs, law enforcement, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other government entities. The DMV has a recall process in place should a plate be issued that later is determined to be inappropriate or offensive, which was used in this circumstance,” the commissioner wrote.

Voltaire never said, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” That was written by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall to summarize the writer’s beliefs. But it’s a sentiment I happen to agree with nonetheless, and I too will defend people’s right to say stupid things in public. In fact, I can promise I’ll say some of those stupid things myself, and I hope people defend my right to say them with the same zeal they stick up for Mr. Nazi Hummer.

But free speech doesn’t mean speech free from consequence, and it also doesn’t mean speech is unlimited. One doesn’t need to delve into hypotheticals to explain all of the many ways speech can lawfully be curtailed, but it should be obvious to any reasonable person that explicit references to the Nazi regime shouldn’t be stamped on state-issued license plates.

The First Amendment “guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely” but it doesn’t grant people a license to use the government to advance racist and genocidal belief systems. If you can’t or won’t accept this very simple bit of logic, you should probably finish your homework because you’re almost certainly a ninth-grade boy and you should be in bed.

But how do we ensure the innocent Dan Reichs and Bill Fuhrers are able to express their First Amendment rights? Shouldn’t they have the same right to vanity plates as any other Tom, Dick or Harry Hitler? Well, sure. But if people want to decorate their vehicle with obvious Nazi references, they’re going to have to make do with an offensive bumper sticker. How do we know when someone’s personalized plate strays from familial fun into Downtown Naziville? To paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: You know it when you see it. And I’m sorry, but a 3REICH license plate is as Nazi as a Himmlerburger with extra Goebbels sauce.

The First Amendment isn’t in jeopardy when we speak out to criticize abhorrent speech. Ideas are best fought with ideas, and as a former journalist I’m keenly aware of the need for everyone to have the right to be heard. But if you think I’m not going to speak back, if you think your hateful words won’t be met with contempt and ridicule, think again. Or for the first time, maybe. Because it was silence and complicity that allowed a fringe party of disaffected idiots led by a loud-mouthed racist to plunge the world into the blackest period any person alive has ever known.

If you want to be a Nazi, I’ll defend to the death your right to do so; but you should know that I’m also going to use those same free-speech rights we both enjoy to call out your ignorance, challenge your backward belief systems and work to eradicate your brand of hatred from the planet until the day I die.

Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer and photographer from Alaska. He is the former editor of the Chugiak-Eagle River Star, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and the Anchorage Press. He has also worked as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and the (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion.

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