Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Skokie, Illinois

In 1977, the American Nazi Party wished to stage a rally and march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie is a suburb of Chicago with a predominantly Jewish population; many Holocaust survivors live in the town. The Skokie city government got a court injunction prohibiting the rally; the ACLU took up the Nazis' case and eventually got the injunction lifted. For a good brief summary, go here. As many of you are aware, this case was a precedent setting case in regards to the extent of the First Amendment. I had to write a piece for my AP Government class with regard to which side should have won the court case. Basically, should the Nazis be allowed to march or not? Since I have been and will continue to be busy with some numbers related classes (AP Physics and AP Stats), here's something to tide you over in the meantime...without further ado, here is the afore-mentioned piece.

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” This is, in a nutshell, what every student’s answer should be. The First Amendment applies to all citizens equally; certain groups do not get preferential treatment. The problem with the First Amendment is that so often, there are instances of it applying “to me, but not to thee.” That is, the First Amendment is great when the majority of the population agrees with what is being said, but that as soon as a dissenting or unpopular opinion is voiced, the populace immediately wishes to forgo the First Amendment and shut the unpopular opinion up. The Nazi Party should, nay, MUST be allowed to march and stage their rally in Skokie. To do anything else, regardless of concerns over violence, intimidation, or prejudice, is an attack on the First Amendment rights of every American.

The complaint that violence will result from a given action, such as a rally, is a common reason given in attempts to restrict the First Amendment right of freedom of assembly. This justification is a non sequitur, for one simple reason: the laws of this country do not permit the government to arrest anyone on the possibility they will break the law. The arrest can only take place after the law has been broken. In such an incendiary situation as this, the police should monitor the crowd closely, and should not hesitate to take action if there is law-breaking activity taking place. But blocking a group’s right to assemble on the basis that the assembly will cause violence or other law-breaking leads the country down a slippery slope. Anti-war marches often result in violence. Should the government prevent all anti-war marches from taking place? There have been instances of sports rallies or crowds getting out of hand. Should the government ban all sports rallies on the pretense that they incite violence? If the right to assemble peaceably does not apply to all groups, it applies to none.

Another concern over having a broad right to assemble is the intimidation that can result in a community from a radical or controversial group staging a rally in the town. On the face of it, this argument seems to have more merit than the argument that violence will result. After all, it seems reasonable to assume that the citizens of this country have a right, as a self-governing nation, to expect their government to do as the majority of citizens of that government see fit, including ensuring the comfort of those citizens to be free from offensive and intimidating messages. However, this viewpoint illustrates a common fallacy about American government: this country is often described as a “country founded on democracy,” when in fact this is a nation founded on the rule of law. The difference is that in a true, absolute democracy, the “voice of the people” has the final say on what laws to keep, while in a country under the rule of law, the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, has the final say on which laws to keep and which must be struck down. An extension of this broad principle is the idea that the First Amendment is not intended to “protect” the rights of the majority; instead, it is intended to truly protect the rights of the minority, such as those who express views that are considered unpopular, even offensive.

The last major concern over maintaining a broad right to assemble is that prejudicial messages and hate speech may be heard and protected under the right. The simplest rebuttal to this statement is that there is nothing in the First Amendment that guarantees a right to not be offended. As long as the hate speech does not directly incite violence, it must be protected as free speech. In addition, it has been said that the best counter to hate speech is more speech. The people of Skokie are free to express, through a peaceful counter-demonstration, how they feel about this intrusion into their town. This would be the ultimate way of showing the failure of the Nazis’ ideology, for it was in Nazi Germany that speech was stifled; it is here in the United States where all speech is allowed.

The First Amendment cannot be set aside over fears of violence, intimidation, or hate speech. As long as any given example of speech or gathering does not directly involve violence or slander, it must be protected, regardless of how controversial it is. The truest definition of freedom of speech comes from Voltaire, who said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” This must be the ideal that is striven for. Anything less is a betrayal of the principles the United States is founded upon.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that...if I find the time, expect some posts in regards to some National Guardsmen who are trying to get the family of a dead Iraqi ally asylum, and the poor state of U.S. intelligence.