A moment of silence in the war on free speech

It’s customary, when recalling some major, tragic event, to remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. Normal scenes — washing dishes, listening to some unremarkable pop song on the radio, grabbing coffee on the way to work — shift from quotidian to sacrosanct. Those unwashed dishes become a memorial, that song a requiem, that coffee shop hallowed ground.

I don’t remember where I was when I got the news about the Capital Gazette shooting. I vaguely remember the New York Times notification popping up on my screen and that familiar sick feeling that has come to accompany disturbingly regular alerts of mass shootings.

What I do remember is the aftermath: slowly absorbing the details, staring at the faces of the victims, discovering that the shooter’s only motivation was that he didn’t like the paper’s coverage of him. In my own newsroom, fellow student journalists alternated between silence and outrage. The whole thing was cloaked with fear. This was the danger of doing business.

I clung to stories, as I’ve always done, to try to understand how this could happen. It seems that the news is inundated with stories of the perils of truth-telling, of truth toppled by ignorance. Journalists are killed in Mexico, in Syria, in war zones across the world. Journalists are jailed and tortured by regimes whose biggest enemy is truth. This isolated event was not so isolated.

Other stories resurfaced for me, too. Milo Yiannopoulos visited campus my freshman year, claiming oppression from liberals when his words were met with protest. Donald Trump’s voice echoes through screens, attacking each time someone threatens his reputation. His administration locks journalists out of White House briefings, telling supporters they lie, calling them “fake news” constantly.

These didn’t seem unconnected to me.

While trying to assemble my feelings, I was tossed back into my freshman year. I was already a news addict, but the 2016 election brought out the worst symptoms of my disease. I would open tab after tab of articles, quickly sifting through each one. The New York Times became a bookmark, NPR a background hum.

When Trump won, my world went silent for a while. I remember where I was when I heard that news — on campus at a crowded watch party, facing a giant screen. The map flashed, CNN called it, celebration became protest. I skipped it, walking back to my dorm room tight-lipped.

The world did not stay silent for long, though. Yiannopoulos stormed my campus, demanding to be heard. Students were louder, occupying Sproul Plaza armed with anger. His supporters called our protest censorship.

Here my mind rested for a moment on the central question tying Trump, Yiannopoulos and the Capital Gazette together: What do we really think about free speech, and what is threatening it?

There is a war being waged on free speech. But it is not being waged on members of the “alt-right,” as they and their supportive administration have claimed. They are protected in their right to think their thoughts and speak them aloud, and supporters are protected in their right to share those thoughts.

Free speech does not protect them from anger. The law protects them from harm, but not dissent.

The victims of the war on free speech are those who speak truth to power — the activists, the oppressed, the journalists. The physical attack on the Capital Gazette is, in my mind, a direct extension of the verbal attacks levied by this administration on the press.

The suspected shooter was allowed to be angry about what the Capital wrote. He was allowed to file his defamation lawsuit. He was allowed to be upset when he lost it.

But to murder five employees? To decide that his reputation mattered more than the lives of innocent people? No constitution allowed him that — so what did?

I joined The Daily Californian my sophomore year, unable to stomach passivity any longer. Consuming news, although still such a big part of my life, was not enough. I knew I had to be a part of it, fighting on the side of truth in the war on free speech.

Turns out, I didn’t need a requiem to honor the Capital Gazette shooting, some memory to hold up as The Moment I Found Out. The memorial exists already. It exists in the survivors, who continue their work undeterred. It exists in the moment of silence I shared with my newsroom and with newsrooms across the country.

It exists in the issue of the Capital that published the morning after the shooting, with the front page lit up with news of those killed. “Today, we are speechless,” the paper read alongside the names of the victims, explaining the blank opinion page. Speechless, but only for a moment. Then, the fight begins again, louder than ever.

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.