1939 February 17

NYC Mayor La Guardia To Permit Huge German-American Bund Rally


New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia announced today that he would all the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi Germany group, to hold a rally at Madison Square Garden. Since the rise of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, many liberals and Jews argued that the group should not be allowed to hold public meetings, particularly because of the presence of uniformed Bund guards. A number of pro-Nazi groups sprang up beginning in 1933, including the Silver Shirts and other paramilitary militaristic “shirts” organizations. Many anti-Nazi Americans believed they were the equivalent of the Nazi storm troopers in Germany. The Bund announced that 3,000 uniformed Bund guards would preserve order at the planned rally.

La Guardia defended his action in terms of the American commitment to freedom of speech. “Our government provides free speech,” he declared, “and this city will respect that right.” He stipulated, however, that freedom of speech did not allow the Bund to advocate violence or the violent overthrow of the government.

The appearance of pro-Nazi groups in the 1930s forced the ACLU to decide whether the First Amendment protected their rights of freedom of speech and assembly. On April 30, 1934 the ACLU ruled that it did, and assisted Nazi groups in protecting those rights (November 1938).

The most famous episode in the history of the ACLU’s defense of the First Amendment rights of Nazis began on October 4, 1976 when a small Nazi group requested a permit for a demonstration in Skokie, Illinois, a heavily Jewish community near Chicago. After a long battle in the courts, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals May 22, 1978 upheld the rights of the Nazi group.

Learn more about hate speech: Samuel Walker, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994)

Read: Philippa Strum, When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for the Speech We Hate (1999)

Learn more: H. Paul Jeffers, The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia  (2002)


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