Puerto Ricans’ Thorny Response to Hate Speech

Six panelists engaged in a public discussion of hate speech and free speech at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland. Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel was the moderator. /Maria Padilla


Hate speech is a thorny issue, as recently proven by the Puerto Rican community’s reaction to the social media video of Puerto Rican Alex Michael Ramos of Georgia who rioted with white nationalists in Charlottesville and bragged of his dubious exploits.

When confronted with the news, many in Orlando’s Puerto Rican community questioned whether “he was really a Puerto Rican.”

Alex Michael Ramos

“He is not Puerto Rican.” “He was not born in Puerto Rico.” If you’re born in the states you’re not Puerto Rican.” “Only those born in Puerto Rico can call themselves Puerto Ricans.” And so it went.

It matters little whether Ramos was born in the states or Puerto Rico. That is a dead-end conversation – a stale and sterile non-starter. And, frankly, who cares?

The Ramos dilemma should have prompted a soul searching discussion among Puerto Ricans like the one this week at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland on free speech/hate speech that drew a crowd of several hundred.

Six engaging panelists attempted to shed light on what constitutes free speech and hate speech, and what communities can do about it, answering questions on the minds of many.

“The way we respond to Charlottesville is what defines us as a country,” said Mark Freid, president of the Holocaust Memorial Center adjacent to the JCC.

Protected Speech

Understandably but disconcertingly, one of the things Americans must learn to do is tolerate hate speech as part of the First Amendment. “Hate speech is offensive speech,” said Terri Day, constitutional law professor at Barry University School of Law. “The Supreme Court has pretty much protected offensive speech.”

Do we want to have the government dictate good and bad ideas? asked Day, who defended the right of white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak at the University of Florida, which cancelled his event. “The government cannot discriminate between the content, viewpoint or speaker.”

State Senator Geraldine Thompson (D-Dist. 12) pushed the conversation from the abstract to the real world, emphasizing that “words have power. If we can demonize a person, we can annihilate them.”

Extremists as Victims

Former Neo Nazi Skinhead Angela King, who served three years in jail for her role in an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store, said she was torn between free speech and hate speech. But any publicity, she added, amplifies the message of far right extremists. “Good publicity, bad publicity. No matter. It was good for us.”

Extremists see themselves as victims, she explained. Denial of free speech provokes extremists to double down on the notion. “If someone told us no, then we could say we are the ones being persecuted.”

The recent relatively peaceful protest in Boston was held up as an example of how to handle free speech or hate speech rallies. “Boston did a phenomenal job of keeping the sides separated,” said Orlando Police Chief John Mina, adding that weapons or objects that could be used as weapons were prohibited at the protest.

“We have no open carry in Florida and many chiefs across the country have had to deal with that,” he explained. Some local governments are passing ordinances that restrict open carry during rallies, he said.

Push Back

Thompson and Mitchell Bloom, Holocaust Memorial Center resource teacher, offered other ways to counter hate speech. Thompson cited this year’s graduation protest at Bethune Cookman University, Daytona Beach, in which students turned their backs on speaker Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  “It doesn’t mean we have to listen to them,” she said.

Thompson also mentioned the march of Skinheads through Parramore in 1995, an act of provocation to the predominantly black community. “What they want is violence and I suggested [residents] stay home or just be observers.”

Bloom, meanwhile, indicated the community should push back on hate speech with facts and by relating personal stories, which are softer and less confrontational. “There are people who can be won over.”


Rachel Allen of Valencia College’s Peace and Justice Institute, said creating a safe space for different voices is important, not as the namby-pamby coddling of feelings but as a space guided by principles on how to have that conversation.

Said Allen: “Gandhi said free speech was America’s greatest freedom but he also said we must prepare.”

Returning to the Puerto Rican who marched in Charlottesville, the Puerto Rican community in Orlando  must learn to peacefully confront Puerto Ricans whose beliefs offend common values and sensibilities.

For it matters not if Ramos was born in Puerto Rico or the states, only that he is a lost soul with whom we need to engage so that others don’t follow his destructive path.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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