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NYT 1978: Two Celebrations of Free Speech
The New York Times Editorial Board argued that defending the free speech rights of Nazi sympathizers secures those rights for every minority.
On June 11, 1978, The New York Times Editorial Board celebrated court decisions overthrowing bans on gatherings of Nazi sympathizers. The editorial also defends the ACLU, which lost a lot of members for defending the rights of Nazi sympathizers. The piece highlights how precious the NYT editorial board at the time viewed free speech rights and principles, including for individuals or groups with abhorrent opinions.
Two Celebrations of Free Speech
So the Nazis may, if they choose, march in Skokie. The lower courts have overthrown local ordinances aimed against the group; a permit has been issued; and on June 25, barring the unlikely intervention of the Supreme Court, some 50 or 100 American admirers of Adolf Hitler will have the right to gather before the village hall. That, in our view, is as it should be.
Serious arguments to deny the Nazis the rights of speech and assembly have been raised in the months since they first announced the plan to rally in the predominantly Jewish village. Three of the arguments have special force: That such a march in such a place would violate the rights of several thousand former inmates of concentration camps and others who lost relatives to Hitler's gas ovens; that it would constitute an intolerable provocation to those victims of Nazism and so lead to violence; and that a group like the Nazis, which would deprive other Americans of their freedoms, has no claim to the protection of the Constitution.
We respect these arguments, but cannot accept them. The first could have been used against civil rights marchers whose demonstrations deeply offended residents of such Southern cities as Selma, Ala; free speech by its nature often means speech that will offend someone. The second argument would penalize peaceful demonstrators for the violence that might be committed against them; it was to prevent such violence that Lyndon Johnson dispatched Federal troops to Selma. The third argument has frequently been used against other fringe groups; some of those who oppose the Nazi march would cry foul if a Communist rally were banned, even though Communists are not famed for their commitment to free speech.
Taken together, these arguments would permit those in power to hold down the weak. Once it is left to the majority to choose which groups are entitled to demonstrate for their views, the rights of every unpopular minority are jeopardized. The ragtag gang that calls itself the National Socialist Party has won the contempt it deserves, but as long as it remains within the law, its rights must be assured. We trust that the counterdemonstrators who propose to gather in Skokie on June 25 will keep that in mind. It will be the job of the police to help them do so.
On Tuesday, two weeks before the scheduled march in Skokie, a very different sort of gathering will take place in New York City. A National Convocation on Free Speech, designed to clarify and reaffirm the principles of the First Amendment, has been organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. One of the subjects to be debated is what limits, if any, should be placed on hate‐mongering and defamation.
The A.C.L.U. has suffered a severe loss of membership and revenue as a result of its efforts on behalf of the Nazis in Skokie. But it did what it had to do in such a case, what it exists to do. The right of free speech rests on the premise that the airing of obnoxious opinion is more beneficial to society than its suppression; that it is better for citizens to choose among contending ideas than for the state to do the choosing for them; that minority voices must be protected against the power and prejudice of the majority.
So this idea will be celebrated twice this month —at the National Convocation on Free Speech in New York City and then at the Nazi rally in Skokie. Both events, in their contrary ways, should reaffirm the vision of the creators of our Constitution.
Find the editorial here.