1978 May 22

7th Circuit Affirms Nazi Free Speech Rights in Skokie


A small, rag-tag American Nazi group, led by Frank Collin, had applied for a permit for a demonstration in the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago on October 4, 1976. An estimated 40,500 of Skokie’s 70,000 residents were Jewish. The request touched off a national controversy about the scope of the First Amendment and hate speech. The Village of Skokie attempted to prevent the demonstration with a series of restrictive ordinances, and the ACLU agreed to defend the free speech rights of the group. The ordinances required permit seekers to secure $300,000 in liability insurance and $50,000 in property damage insurance; prohibited the dissemination of literature designed to incite racial or religious hatred; and prohibited demonstrations by groups wearing military-style uniforms.

The case finally reached the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which in Collin v. Smith affirmed the First Amendment rights of the Nazi group, declaring th Skokie ordinances unconstitutional. Having won in court, however, the group chose not to appear in Skokie, and instead staged a demonstration in Chicago on July 9, 1978. The Supreme Court denied to hear an appeal of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision, leaving it standing.

The issue of the free speech rights of Nazis first arose in the 1930s, following the rise of Hitler in Germany and the resulting spread of pro-Nazi militaristic groups in the U.S. The ACLU confronted the issue and, on April 30, 1934, developed a policy holding that the First Amendment did protect the First Amendment rights of Nazi groups. On December 5, 1941, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state “race hate” law directed at Nazi groups.

In the 2-1 decision on this day, the dissenting judge made reference to the court possibly apologizing for its decision because of the unpleasant result that Nazis would be allowed to march. The majority opinion replied with the following defense of freedom of speech and assembly:

Although we would have thought it unnecessary to say so, it apparently deserves emphasis in the light of the dissent’s reference to this court apologizing as to the result, that our regret at the use appellees’ plan to make of their rights is not in any sense an apology for upholding the First Amendment. The result we have reached is dictated by the fundamental proposition that if these civil rights are to remain vital for all, they must protect not only those society deems acceptable, but also those whose ideas it quite justifiably rejects and despises.”

Find original documents at the Illinois Digital Archives: http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/skokiepo001

Read: Philippa Strum, When the Nazis Came to Skokie (1999)

Learn more at a timeline on the Skokie free speech controversy: http://www.skokiehistory.info/chrono/nazis.html

Learn more: Lee Bollinger, The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America (1986)

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