For All or For None:
The 1978 Skokie Nazi Rally (that didn't happen)

The Debate

On this page we will each present an argument for both sides of the Skokie issue. Daniel will argue that allowing the march was necessary for the freedom of speech, and Jon will argue against allowing the Nazis to march. The method we used in this is much like a written debate. We each formed a constructive argument on our own, and then gave each other the time to look over the other's argument. After this, we each refuted the each other's arguments in shorter rebutttals.

Contents:

  1. Daniel's argument (jump down)
  2. Jon's rebuttal (jump down)
  3. Jon's Argument (jump down)
  4. Daniel's Rebuttal (jump down)

Pro-Freedom of Speech Argument (back to top)

By Daniel Ketchell

The argument I am about to make is a dangerous one. In order for it to achieve its greatest impact, I must tread a careful line to ensure that I come off as an enlightened intellectual rather than as an emotionless machine. So before you automatically dismiss me as a Nazi-sympathizer, or someone ready to drag the lives of people who have already suffered through still more turmoil, please consider that I write this not to defend the point of view of the Neo-Nazis, but to defend their right to express that point of view. Please reflect on this argument not with your heart, but with your mind.

To understand why Nazis should have been allowed to march in a town where 40,000 of the 70,000 inhabitants were Jewish and 7,000 were survivors of the Holocaust first requires an understanding of the First Amendment and its purpose. The complete text of the amendment is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” For the Skokie case, the most important sections of this amendment are the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Surely, the First Amendment was not designed to protect individuals and groups who would be met absolutely positively by the population and government. These groups will never be challenged. It is meant to protect the speech that will be challenged, the speech that does not meet accepting ears, and sometimes, the speech that downright offends. This is the speech that requires the defense provided by the First Amendment. Oliver Wendall Holmes stated, “The First Amendment protects free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.” So before moving on to the pillars of my argument, it is important that we have established a sound foundation by realizing this fact about the freedom of speech.

My first point of contention is that by allowing Collin and his group to march in Skokie; indeed, wherever they wanted, the Supreme Court was affirming democratic principles that are the greatest defense against ideas like Nazism. The decision to allow Frank Collin to march in Skokie seems unsympathetic at first glance. But in fact, it was the greatest affront to the ideals he espoused that anyone could have hoped for. Here was a minority of the smallest kind, not only allowed to express his ideas that enraged the majority, but allowed the pedestal to speak from. Just ask a Communist from Nazi Germany about that concept. This was a town built upon the Jewish tradition, true, but it was also one built upon American tradition, which was the beacon that brought the Holocaust survivors to towns like Skokie. To forget that tradition of freedom, and resort to oppression rather than an open marketplace of ideas, is much more dangerous than the possibilities of allowing a tiny group to speak their minds. The beauty and the irony of the Supreme Court's decision is that it granted Collin and his men an opportunity that Hitler would never have allowed a minority opinion in his government. To refuse to acknowledge their First Amendment rights, or to meet them in the streets with clubs, would have been the reaction that the Nazis of Germany would have chosen. So rather than achieving the goal of preventing another Holocaust, such a reaction would harm the fabric of American freedom, revoking the rights of an individual arbitrarily, not in the American tradition, but in the tradition of the very regime the Anti-Nazi groups feared.

It is also important to recognize that democracy rests on necessary assumptions about the people. These assumptions are based on an open, not a restricted, marketplace of ideas. The assumption is that citizens in a democracy will make the right choice. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany could not grant equal rights because their governments were based on ideals and standards that the people would quickly overturn. And so, in order to effectively pursue democracy, the expression of all ideas must be permitted. The people then choose ideas, striking down some and appreciating others. Just as Frank Collin had the right to march in Skokie, the anti-Nazi crowd had the right to counter-protest, which they did, or to simply to not listen. And so for the rights of all to be ensured, the rights of the few must be preserved, even when they are distasteful.

The Nazis did march in Skokie. And so did their opponents, in greater numbers. When considering this entire episode from a constitutional perspective, please consider it not as a demonstration of the horrors of a set of ideals being paraded around the streets, but as a beautiful display of the American system.

 

Jon's Rebuttal (back to top)

The assumption that the side defending the Nazi march makes is that neo-Nazis are going to be relegated to the fringe element of politics forever. It is this assumption that let original Nazis, under the Weimer republic, grow into the political and military entity that took over Germany in the 1930s. I agree to some extent that while times are good in the US the neo-Nazis will be nonentities in mainstream politics but if economic times turn for the worse, as they did in Germany in the early 1900s then it is entirely conceivable that the neo-Nazis will grow in size and scope. Since our courts are based on common law this decision could be used to support Nazi speech in Jewish communities if Neo-Nazis ever gained mainstream political power. So limiting the Nazi abuse of the right of free speech is the best way to keep swastikas in the history books and off main street USA.

 

Against Nazi Demmonstrations (back to top)

by Jon Bertran Harris

The importance of freedom of expression in a civilized and democratic society cannot be understated. The guarantees of the Bill of Rights, as written by the framers of the constitution, are fundamental to the core values and mechanisms of a democracy. The right to free speech and free assembly are basic human rights and in a simple society should always be upheld. But as any of the forefathers will tell you the society in which we live is not simple, it was not in 1776 and it still is not. They would also tell you that governing with the intention of protecting natural rights is not as easily done as it is said. By the very nature of rights and the diversity of man there are undoubtedly going to be cases in which people's rights come into conflict.

The question of Skokie is not whether the National Socialist Party of America or their leader, Frank Collin, has the right to express their views but rather to what extent this right can be guaranteed. The seven thousand Holocaust survivors who resided in Skokie Illinois at the time of the Nazi march also have rights, and in this case the right of speech and assembly of the Nazis come in direct conflict with the basic rights of the persons of the village of Skokie. One cannot possible value the rights of a few (Frank Collin's little band) over the rights of an entire village. By supporting the Nazi attempt to march through the suburb of Skokie you are ignoring the right of the forty thousand Jews who live in Skokie to live their life without fear. The right of these Holocaust survivors to live life without images of gas chambers and swastikas constantly being brought up is a right more fundamental to human dignity and more fundamental to democratic society than the right of a few Neo-Nazi to express their hateful message.

Furthermore whether or not this type of speech is granted by the first amendment is debatable. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once gave an example of the types of speech that does not fall under the umbrella of protected speech. The classic phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” has never been more applicable than in the case of Skokie. Words have power and words that are meant to incite violence are in no way guaranteed by the constitution. Despite the rhetoric of these Nazi thugs their message and their speech boiled down to its core elements are about inciting violence, and the worst kind of violence at that, a race war. This is not about political views but rather about threatening an entire race of people. If the aim of these Nazi were to express their politics and let the market place of ideas decipher their views validity then they would not pressure for a demonstration in a Jewish suburbs but would be content publishing articles and engaging in intellectual discussions instead of standing, under police protection, shouting “White power”.

If there is an overriding message to this column it is that despite what academics from the ACLU would have you believe the case of Skokie Illinois is not clear-cut. There are real world implications to the demonstrations the Nazis planned and there are more rights at stake wrapped up in the case of Skokie than the right of Nazis to march in town squares across America. In simple terms it is about whose rights society values, the right of a handful of Nazis or the rights of an entire town of people.

 

Daniel's Rebuttal (back to top)

Jon is correct when he states that the Holocaust survivors of Skokie also have rights. It is a statement with the utmost logic. They have the right to not hear these hateful words. Where Jon leaves logic behind is in his decision on how to enforce these rights. The Jews' right to not hear these statements is decided by their decision to stay inside. In a democracy, we must allow all points of view to be expressed, and there is always the right of the opposed to not listen. However, idealistically, the best approach would be to provide counterspeech, which would achieve the goals of democracy. Understandably, these survivors left Germany to escape reminders of the Holocaust. But they also chose to migrate to America, a land based on freedom. As they were escaping from the horrors of anti-Semitism, they were also escaping from the horrors of fascism, which allowed anti-Semitism to become policy.

Jon's second argument is based on the constitutional issues of ideas like the “Fighting Words Doctrine.” The most important rebuttal to this argument is provided by Jon himself when he illuminates that the march will occur “under police protection.” It is important to note that while these words are offensive, they are not direct threats. Frank Collin avoided direct threats against the Jews and instead made generalizations based on prejudice. Had his statements been more threatening, they would fall under the “Fighting Words' Doctrine.” Unfortunately, hate speech by itself does not, and so any violence would be instigated on the part of the counter-protesters anger at Collin's statement, and not by the statements themselves.

He closes by questioning the values of certain people's rights, and I will close by warning Jon that it is arguments like this, with no respect for equality, that have caused the effectiveness of the world's dictators throughout history.