The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
Echoes of an Old Debate PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
September 2017

Hate speech is still free speech

MPix_JayBeskin_9-17y neighbors in Aventura include many Holocaust survivors and their children, some more attuned to the nuances of the news, some who mostly hear the headlines and the static.

No one can blame anyone with that background for “overreacting” to anything at all; once you’ve seen the world blow up and lived in brutal chaos without norms or forms, you can never again be fully comfortable with the notion that a nation can rely on the checks and balances of a healthy political process to guide events into a healthy, manageable place.

My neighbors share with me their concerns about the reappearance of white supremacists in public marches, a phenomenon this country has not seen to such a degree in many years. This reminds them of Nazism directly; indeed some of these demonstrators have identified themselves as neo-Nazis and displayed swastikas and other symbols of the Third Reich.

Other neighbors are alarmed by Antifa, a group that says it is battling fascism but does so wearing masks and sometimes wielding clubs. They may be on the right side for now, but the idea of allowing demonstrators for any cause to hide their faces has to be disturbing to anyone with an interest in civic order.

And this column is certainly no place to get into President Trump’s many statements and tweets. Suffice to say that his choices in the realm of public communication do not always result in clarity. We can only try to appeal to him and his backers to exercise extreme caution in word and deed, and to act in moral wisdom so the country is not plunged any deeper into vitriol and chaos.

But I do think this is an appropriate occasion to reflect back on the last time the American Nazis got a little courage and reared their ugly heads in public. This was in 1978 and 1979, when I was practicing as a young attorney in my native Chicago.

At that time, the Nazis, a group of indeterminate size and scope, applied for a permit to march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie is a suburb of Chicago, but it is tucked right near the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city, and if you take a leisurely stroll after dinner in Rogers Park, you might find yourself in Skokie. The Nazis had targeted that particular village because it statistically had the highest proportion of Jews in its population -- 75 percent at that time.

The Nazis were led by a gentleman named Frank Collin, who was apparently descended from Jews named Cohen on his father’s side. This led to the publishing of a lot of weird psychological profiles, to document the phenomenon that came to be known as the “self-hating Jew,” although a friend of mine calls them “self-loving Judaism-hating Jews.”

All sorts of speculation was put out in newsprint and on the airwaves about what awful trauma might have led this son of Jews to label his own creed as the scourge of mankind. Yet this focus on personalities tended to divert attention away from the larger issues involved.

My political activism at the time consisted of membership in the American Civil Liberties Union; and my Jewish activism at the time consisted of membership in the American Jewish Congress, a thriving organization before it was laid low by the peculations of Bernie Madoff. It never occurred to me that my two personas might ever come into conflict. I thought civil liberties made America a safer place for Jews, as well as for all its citizens. If they ever shut down free speech or free exercise of religion, Jews would likely be among the first to suffer.

As it turned out, I was dead wrong. My two organizations were at loggerheads over this issue of the proposed Nazi march. The American Jewish Congress was unequivocal in its opposition to the granting of a permit.

The AJC saw the group as by definition -- the name of Nazi screamed louder than any of their protestations to the contrary -- convened in support of genocide against nations and races. Such themes had no place in the public discourse. You can’t sell poisonous food in the nutrition marketplace, and you shouldn’t be able to sell a case for genocide in the marketplace of public opinion. First Amendment rights do not stretch to cover shouts of “Fire!” whether in a crowded theater as a false alarm or as an instruction to a firing squad with weapons trained on innocent people.

The American Civil Liberties Union saw things differently. They argued that even repugnant views could not be subsumed under the category of threatening speech. If some bozos wanted to fulminate against the Jews who control all the banks, so be it. The citizenry could be trusted to reject such diatribes and to gravitate toward ideas within the mainstream.

The Jews within the ACLU, of whom there were quite a few, felt betrayed by the organization’s defense of the Nazis’ right to speak and assemble. Many very publicly renounced their ACLU membership, leaving me and a handful of others to see the virtue of both positions, retaining our memberships in both associations.

After a bitter slog through the courts for the better -- or worse -- part of two years, the skirmish ended with the Nazis gaining their permit. But they never did march in Skokie; instead they held a couple of rallies at Marquette Park in Chicago. All that hullaballoo turned out to be much ado about nothing.

Well, it might have been that, but it was not “full of sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare would say. It signified quite a bit. In the end, I believe it ennobled both sides of the substantive debate -- not the Nazis of course, but the AJC worldview and the ACLU worldview. Both represented critically important roles, and if they or similar groups occasionally butt heads in a courtroom, so be it. We need organizations like AJC to protect the innocent targets of virulent ideologies. The last minute is way too late to wake up, as we discovered in the 1930s and 1940s.

Yet we also need organizations like the ACLU just as much, and perhaps more. The principle of freedom as the bedrock of American citizenship must be defended at all costs. Ultimately, the safety of all Americans, Jews included, hinges on that freedom.

In a given moment, we might want to shut down some repugnant voice that seems to harbor an implied threat. But we need to remember that once we start allowing that voice to be silenced, who will assure that ours can even possibly be heard?


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