Forty years ago, in 1977, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a prohibition on a march in suburban Skokie by a small Chicago area organization calling itself the National Socialist Party of America, or Nazis. Despite the passage of time, the Skokie case is remembered as a symbol of how far the protection of freedom of speech extends in the United States.
The case has as much relevancy today as it did then as colleges and universities debate about whether speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter, or Charles Murray — none of whom may espouse views like those of the Chicago Nazis, but who are regarded by some of their critics as proponents of hate speech — should be allowed to speak on campuses.
The ACLU, where I was the national executive director, won the case in court. Although the ruling did not establish any new law or legal precedent, the symbolic significance makes the case a landmark and a true reaffirmation of our principles.
This was not the first time the organization had defended free speech for Nazis. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU had taken on hundreds of court cases in which it upheld freedom of speech for Stalinists, Maoists, anarchists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and others expressing views that were anathema to the ACLU itself. Defending the freedoms protected by the First Amendment was our foremost priority.
The actual decision to take on the Skokie case was made by the lawyers at the Illinois ACLU. Its staff thought it was so routine a matter that they did not bother to notify the national office. I learned of the case only when journalists asked me for interviews.
The Illinois ACLU considered the case routine because it had been representing the same group of Nazis on its right to hold a demonstration in a Chicago park that divided a predominantly African-American neighborhood from a neighborhood populated by many recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Nazis wanted to exploit racial tensions in the area, but a court had barred a demonstration at the park.
While the Illinois ACLU challenged this ruling, the Nazis continued writing letters to more than a dozen suburban municipalities threatening to hold demonstrations. Most ignored the Nazis, but Skokie was different. It adopted ordinances to forbid a Nazi march and threatened to arrest the Nazis if they tried to march. This played into the hands of the Nazis, who scheduled a march in Skokie — for May 1, 1977 — and asked the ACLU for legal help.
What turned Skokie into a global story was that the town was a haven for a significant number of Holocaust survivors. I am not sure whether the Nazis initially knew this. But when it became known, it appeared to be a deliberate provocation by the Nazis.
By 1978, the ACLU had won all aspects of the Skokie case in court. The Nazis were free to march. But on the appointed day, they never showed up. Though a heavy police presence would have prevented violence, the Nazis apparently were unwilling to face the mockery they would get from large numbers of hostile spectators. The Nazi organization broke up soon after the march that never took place.
At every step of the way, the same lesson emerged. In a country where free speech generally prevails, it is best to take hate speech in stride. Ignoring it sometimes works, as does overwhelming it with the peaceful expression of contrary views.
Trying to forbid or violently confront hate speech not only violates established American constitutional principles, those tactics also are counterproductive. Prohibition or violence may even elicit sympathy and support for hateful causes, and they give groups like the Chicago Nazis the attention they crave, and without which they cannot survive.
Aryeh Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations. He worked 15 years at the American Civil Liberties Union, including eight years as national executive director.
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