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The National Socialist Party, a Nazi group lead by Frank Collin, proposed a march, in full uniform, to be held on May 1, 1977 through the Village of Skokie near Chicago, Illinois. Skokie was the home of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Shocked by the announcement, the survivors rose in protest against the march (Downs book cover flap). The controversial march that was planned to take place right in the middle of town would clearly have caused problems. If trouble was pretty much guaranteed in Skokie on the day of the march, then should the US Supreme Court have let the Nazis keep their plan to march through Skokie? The proposed Nazi march in the Village of Skokie tested the rights that are included in the First Amendment.
The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Essentially, the First Amendment is supposed to give citizens the right to have free speech, free choice of religion, and the right to assemble peaceably. There are limitations to the First Amendment because every person interprets the rights differently. The Nazis most likely assumed that it was all right to hate people and say it in public, but the Jewish people disagreed, believing that hatred is unacceptable. Where is the line drawn when it comes to people being able to speak their minds? Justice Murphy, a member of the Supreme Court in 1942, had a say on what is considered allowable under the First Amendment and what crosses the line, and he stated,
There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace (Downs 7).
The Jewish people that lived in Skokie believed that this planned rally was extremely disrespectful and unlawful. The many Holocaust survivors and Jews that lived in Skokie were offended by anyone that wore a swastika.
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We expect to show up in front of the Village Hall and tear these people up if necessary we never thought in our wildest dreams that it could happen like that again, that whey would have a right to confront us to say those obscene words without being punished. This realization brought back a terror here we are again, in the same position (Downs 1).
The debate was whether the Nazis had rights. The Jews felt that the Nazi march inflicted mental trauma, triggering painful memories (Downs 93). The Skokie Jews felt that the Nazis should not be protected by the First Amendment and stated, "Defenders of free speech who retain their good sense will realize the Nazis, saying what they say in the way they say it, do exceed reasonable limits" (Bartlett 139).
The Jewish citizens of Skokie had strong feelings on why the Nazi gang should be prohibited to come anywhere near their town in uniform and with swastikas. In their opinion, the entire idea of the Nazi's march, which symbolized hatred and murder of millions of Jews, had crossed the line of the First Amendment. The Jews believed that this event would not be a peaceful assembly, and they could not expect Skokie citizens to stay calm with all the past events that they remembered from the horrifying Holocaust.
The National Socialist Party of America had totally different views on its proposed march. The members followed after Hitler and had the same ideas as he did for "white power." Frank Collin, the leader of the Nazi group stated, "I used it [the First Amendment] at Skokie. I planned the reaction of the Jews. They are hysterical" (2). He didn't understand that what he was doing was immoral and that by being a Nazi supporter he was involved in one of the largest massacres in history, the Holocaust.
The Nazis had completely opposite opinions on the First Amendment and the march they were planning. The attorney on the case for the Nazis, David Goldberg, stated, "Your Honor, if this Court issues a preliminary injunction in the case, enjoining the demonstration of Mr. Collin and the National Socialist Party of America, I fear that the Village of Skokie will be dancing in the grave of the First Amendment" (Downs-front flap of book). The National Socialist Party of America believed that the First Amendment rights -- free speech and freedom to assemble, would back up their actions that would take place at the march in Skokie. What is the importance of walking in uniform and with swastikas through a town that the Nazi's know is full of Jewish people. A Nazi blocker came up with a statement that said,
The Nazis delight in creating fright and havoc among Jews. Recently in this country their demonstrations have several times actually resulted in a riot. Nazis understand full well how maddening their symbols are to their intended victims; they plan that abrasion They will nevertheless be guilty of engaging deliberately in conduct designed to infuriate and calculated to result in a wholesale breach of the public peace (Bartlett 142).
They believed that it was all right to show their hatred in public for everyone to see. Are they right or wrong?
After Collin announced the date of the march, the Skokie Jewish community won a court injunction that prohibited the Nazis from displaying uniforms or swastikas or giving out literature promoting hatred. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), representing the Nazis, tried to get a stay of injunction from the Illinois Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case. So, the ACLU took the case to the United States Supreme Court, and it ordered the Illinois court to respond (Bartlett 137). The ACLU said that freedom of speech was at stake, not Nazism. The Illinois Supreme Court finally responded in January 1978 and struck down the injunction.
At this point, the Skokie Village Council adopted three new ordinances to keep the Nazis from demonstrating. The first required that a permit would be necessary for a demonstration. The second banned political organizations from demonstrating in military style uniforms. The third banned the display of "symbols offensive to the community" (Bartlett 138). These ordinances were debated and finally ruled unconstitutional. Skokie then appealed the case, and it eventually went to the US Supreme Court for a decision, which upheld that the bans were unconstitutional.
Because the US Supreme Court chose to stand behind the law of the First Amendment, even under these circumstances, the Nazis were given the right to march and got what they wanted. Collin had planned a new date, June 25, 1978 for his march, but it never occurred in Skokie. The Nazis marched at another Chicago location in July. They had gained attention for sixteen months and challenged the court system to look carefully at the First Amendment.