1993 September 8

Freedom for the Thought We Hate: African American ACLU Lawyer Defends KKK First Amendment Rights; Criticized by NAACP


When Texas state officials demanded that the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan turn over the groups’ membership list, the Texas ACLU announced that it would defend him in his refusal to do so. The local ACLU lawyer who agreed to handle the case was Anthony Griffin, an African-American. In the waiting room outside Griffin’s office, KKK leader Michael Lowe looked around, saw a lot of civil rights material, and exclaimed to his girlfriend, “Holy moly, I think this guy’s black!” He was not the only person surprised by the case. The local NAACP demanded that Griffin resign as a member, and the national NAACP agreed to look into the matter. Griffin defended his role in defending the First Amendment rights of the KKK, arguing that “if you take away their rights, you take away my rights also.”

The right of organizations to not turn over membership lists was established by the Supreme Court in NAACP v. Alabama, on June 30, 1958, in which the Court established a First Amendment freedom of association. In that case, the state of Alabama had passed a law requiring the NAACP and other organizations disclose their membership lists in a clear attempt to expose NAACP members to harassment.

Nor was Griffin the first African-American ACLU lawyer to defend a racist. On September 30, 1968, Eleanor Holmes Norton defended Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who had been denied the use of Shea Stadium in New York City by liberal Mayor John V. Lindsay. Wallace’s aides were also surprised when they stepped out of their taxi cab and discovered they had an African-American lawyer.

The famous phrase “freedom for the thought we hate” originated with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his dissent in Schwimmer v. United States on May 27, 1929.

Learn more: Gara LaMarche, ed., Speech and Equality: Do We Really Have to Choose? (1996)

Learn about recent KKK First Amendment cases: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/tag/kkk

Learn about the KKK today: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/ideology/ku-klux-klan

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