American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 147-149
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Is freedom of speech, a fundamental liberty protected by the First Amendment, available to racists and anti-Semites? Or is the speech of bigots, which may inflict serious emotional harm upon vulnerable members of society, beyond the constitutional pale? In 1977, these abstractions assumed frightening urgency in Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population, among whom lived more than five thousand Holocaust survivors.
The Chicago-based National Socialist Party of America (an offshoot of George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazi Party), led by Frank Collin, requested a permit for a demonstration on the steps of the village hall. Frightened and outraged survivors were unwilling to permit Nazi uniforms on the streets of Skokie. They persuaded town officials to seek an injunction prohibiting the Nazi presence and to enact ordinances which withdrew protection from speech that incited hatred based on race, national origin, or religion. When the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to represent the free-speech claims of the Nazis, the constitutional issue was joined.
From the outset, the clash in Skokie was replete with historical ironies. The town, originally settled by German immigrants, had been a Bund stronghold in the 1930s. Collin was the son of a Jewish father, who was himself a Holocaust survivor. And David Goldberger, the ACLU lawyer who represented Collin (while insisting that he was only defending the First Amendment), was Jewish. As Goldberger quickly discovered, "What started out as a distasteful but otherwise routine civil liberties case turned into an incredible battle" (p. 82). [End Page 147]
With a sure grasp of the constitutional issues, Philippa Strum, a political scientist at the City University of New York, is a knowledgeable guide to the legal intricacies of the various Skokie cases that wound their tangled way to judicial resolution. As the cases meandered toward the Supreme Court, they bumped against some major free-speech precedents. In 1942, in Chaplinsky (315 U.S. 568), the Supreme Court had exempted "fighting words" from constitutional protection. A decade later, in Beauharnais (343 U.S. 250), the Court upheld an Illinois "group libel" statute that was quite similar to the Skokie regulations. In 1969, the Brandenburg (395 U.S. 444) decision drew the constitutional free-speech line at incitement to imminent lawless action.
Under doctrine developed in any, or all, of these cases, the Skokie survivors might have prevailed. Instead, the Illinois Supreme Court relied upon Cohen v. California (403 U.S. 15), under which, in 1971, the Supreme Court had ruled that "the symbolic expression of thought"--now interpreted to include swastikas and Nazi doctrine--was protected by the First Amendment. Summarizing Judge Bernard Decker's ruling, which was tacitly accepted by the Supreme Court, Strum understands the Skokie cases to mean that "there is no right not to be insulted when the insult is part of the expression of ideas" (p. 106).
The Skokie issues sharply divided the American Jewish community, and for good reason. As Theodore Mann, national vice president of the American Jewish Committee (which rejected the ACLU approach), explained: "At war in Jewish hearts are two parts of our heritage--on the one hand a profound commitment to the principle of unfettered freedom of expression, and, on the other hand, an anguished collective memory of the Holocaust" (p. 91). Skokie forced the issue: could one be a good liberal, and a good Jew?
The wish to protect the Skokie survivors from Collin's perverse determination to reactivate their hideous trauma is not hard to understand. As their spokesman explained in court: "These are people that lost their parents, their children, their wives, and that know what it means a swastika to them. They promise to death that a swastika won't appear anymore" (p. 53). They actually expected the American government to protect them, not give aid and comfort to despicable Nazis...