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Violence at Capitol and beyond reignites a debate over America’s long-held defense of extremist speech

With most Americans hoping this week’s expected inauguration protests look nothing like the Capitol siege, questions emerge about unrestrained free expression, long championed by First Amendment theorists as a benefit to society, no matter how ugly and hateful.

The optics may be disturbing, especially so soon after the riot, with the potential of protesters — many of like mind with those who stormed the Capitol — screaming, or worse, at troops and police standing guard outside the razor wire-topped fences surrounding the Capitol.

Is allowing this type of expression “good” for America? An old First Amendment theory — known as the safety valve — says it is, that permitting groups to express themselves releases pressure, ensuring objectionable ideas aren’t driven underground where they might boil over into violence.

Permitting free speech, including hate and extremist speech, is often cast as a universal boon, reinforced in idioms such as, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it.”

Not all First Amendment scholars are buying the safety valve theory, especially after the deadly episode at the Capitol. They question if extremist speech demands more limitations when it’s inextricably linked to the violence at the nation’s legislative headquarters, after hateful online rhetoric dovetailed with politicians and activists delivering speeches to revved-up crowds that marched to the Capitol, some bent on insurrection.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, the consummate guardian of speech, has sought to address the “competing values” its long-held defense of expression presents, and some experts say free speech theories need to take into account the way social media has been used to manipulate the marketplace of ideas, foreign media reported.

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