Candles memorializing Rick Best, left, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche.(Photo: Gillian Flaccus, AP)

Heroism is instinctive, an action taken in a split second of crisis to save a life, defend deeply held values, or simply to stand up for what’s right.

Such heroism was on display last week in Portland, Ore., when the loud, ugly voice of hate drew three men to intervene as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, ranted and verbally abused two teenage girls, one of them wearing a Muslim head scarf. The three men tried to calm the situation on the light-rail commuter train while Christian spewed his bile about blacks and Muslims.

Tragically, Christian lashed out at the women’s defenders with a knife, killing two of them with horrific precision and injuring the third, according to police.

As Christian fled the train, Rick Best, a 53-year-old veteran and city worker, lay fatally wounded. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, a recent college graduate with his life before him, was pronounced dead at a hospital. College student Micah Fletcher, 21, was stabbed, but his wound “missed being a fatal injury by millimeters,” according to court papers quoting his doctors.

All three put themselves at risk, seemingly without a thought for their own safety, to help two young strangers. The term “hero” is often tossed around casually, as in all those “sports heroes,” but here it is the perfect fit.

OPPOSING VIEW:

Mayor Ted Wheeler: Portland has seen enough

OPPOSING VIEW:

Mayor of Portland, Ore., is right

The incident has drawn prayers and tributes from across the shaken city, which was rife with conflict even before the horrific killings. And while Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has called on citizens to honor the heroes, who died in defense of decency, he has turned his back on another American value: freedom of speech.

Wheeler asked Washington to revoke a permit for a rally planned for Sunday on a federal plaza in downtown Portland and has refused to grant a city permit for a “March Against Sharia” on June 10. Both events are sponsored by a group called Patriot Prayer, which bills Sunday’s event as a “Trump Free Speech Rally” in “one of the most liberal areas of the West Coast.”

The mayor’s trepidation about violence is understandable. But it doesn’t make his attempt to block the two upcoming rallies right or, for that matter, legal. In a news conference Monday, Wheeler asserted that  “hate speech is not protected under the U.S. Constitution.”

Actually, the Supreme Court, joined by other federal and state courts, has repeatedly rejected efforts to stifle so-called hate speech or speech that might provoke violence. It is up to public officials to prevent violence, not prevent speech.

On Wednesday, federal authorities rejected Wheeler’s request, even as rally organizers discussed moving the June 10 event to Seattle.

Free speech is already under siege on too many college campuses, as students block unpopular speakers with violence or threats of it. To see a mayor attempt to banish speech from the public square undermines one of the country’s most cherished freedoms.

In recent months, Portland has seen groups from the extreme right and “anti-fascists” from the extreme left clash violently at rallies. Police in riot gear have intervened, and scores have been arrested. The alleged commuter train killer, Christian, was at one such rally in April, wrapped in an America flag, carrying a bat and making a Nazi salute.

But Christian is not easy to label. He has also espoused support for Bernie Sanders and later for Donald Trump. Like other disturbed young men, he is a jumble of passions and hate. Christian’s appearance at an earlier rally is no reason to prevent others from speaking.

Popular speech in front of calm, peaceful crowds is easy to defend. It is the least popular speech, often by those who are marginalized, that most needs protection. The best way to honor Portland’s fallen heroes, who stood up for their beliefs, is to stand up for this sacred America value.

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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