Many of us residing near the University of California, Berkeley, CA like to think we are the center of the 1st Amendment universe due to the Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio. However, I had to stop in Skokie, as at a memorial, in respect for the suffering of the residents of Skokie who felt that residing in the United States meant being free of Nazi intimidation, and to express my undying respect for the unpopular stance that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took here. They lost 30,000 members due to their championing of the rights of the abominable petitioners.
In 1977, the National Socialist Party (American Nazis) tried to get a permit for a Nazi parade in a nearby town. Unable to obtain a permit, they decided to go public with the trampling of their Constitutional right to gather and to express their ugly views. They applied to the Village of Skokie, because it would guarantee a big emotional response. Skokie had over 50% Jewish residents. 10% of the town were Holocaust Survivors. The idea of swastikas, goose walks, and Nazi uniforms could make many in this town react with severe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The parade permit was denied, and a lawsuit began. The ACLU wrote amicus (“friends of the court”) briefs for the Nazis right to parade their views. The Supreme Court of the United States agreed. Many progressives pulled their memberships, not understanding the import of upholding our Bill of Rights, even for evil minority groups. The Justices upheld the principles of democracy, even though I am sure they found these beneficiaries of free speech to be repugnant individuals. Fortunately, there was no parade in Skokie (it happened later in Chicago), and in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, some Holocaust survivors established a Holocaust Museum here. I will always be, as George H.W. Bush described Dukakis, “A card-carrying member of the ACLU”. Democracy in practice, is far more painful than in theory.