IN 1977, THE American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went to court to defend the rights of American neo-Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago home to many Holocaust survivors. The group defended the Nazis’ right to demonstrate and won the case on First Amendment grounds, but 30,000 members quit the organization in protest.
The Skokie case cemented the image of the ACLU as a principled defender of free speech. The following year, Ira Glasser was elevated from head of the New York state chapter to the national organization’s executive director, a position he would hold for the next 23 years. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, Mighty Ira, that celebrates his time leading the charge against government regulation of content on the internet, hate speech laws, speech codes on college campuses, and more.
Retired since 2001, Glasser says he’s worried about the future of both free expression and the organizations that defend it. In 2018, a leaked ACLU memo offered guidelines for case selection that retreated from the group’s decadeslong content-neutral stance, citing as a reason to decline a case “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.” Glasser fears that, by becoming more political and less absolutist when it comes to defending speech, the ACLU might be shrugging off its hard-won legacy.
In October, Glasser spoke with Reason’s Nick Gillespie via Zoom.
Reason: The incident that dominates Mighty Ira is Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s. Set the scene for that.
Glasser: What was going on in Skokie started in Chicago. This group of neo-Nazis, maybe 15 or 20 crazies, were against racial integration, not Jews. They were anti-Semitic, to be sure, but mostly against integration of schools and housing. Most lived on one side of Marquette Park in Chicago. On the other side was a predominantly black neighborhood. The Martin Luther King Jr. Association, a civil rights group in Chicago, used to demonstrate in the park in favor of integration, so it became a place where neo-Nazis and civil rights activists would frequently clash in contiguous demonstrations. I don’t remember it breaking out into violence, but it was always tense and the city was always busy policing it. So the city threw up its hands, tired of spending time and energy navigating these two groups exercising their free speech rights, and passed a law saying nobody can demonstrate in Marquette Park unless they first post a $250,000 insurance bond against the possibility of damage to the park.
The problem with the bond is that no insurance company will sell it to you. These two small groups could not afford it. Insurance bond requirements like that had been frequently used against civil rights marches in the South and had always been struck down, usually [with the help of] the ACLU, as transparent attempts to stop speech that small towns in the South didn’t like.
So as soon as we saw that the city of Chicago had done that, ACLU of Illinois lawyers’ ears perked up. Sure enough, the Martin Luther King Jr. Association comes marching into our office one day and asks if we’ll represent them in challenging it. It was an easy call, because we had always represented groups challenging bonding requirements. We filed a suit.
A few days later, Frank Collin of the neo-Nazi group asked us to do the same thing. The lawyers said they already had this case in the courts. His response was, “You don’t have it for us.” They said, “No, but it will apply to you. It’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether it was filed on your behalf or the Martin Luther King Jr. Association—it’s the same challenge. When we win it—as we will—it will knock out the requirement for both of you. It can’t be that the requirement will only apply to one and not the other.” [Collin’s group was] inconsolable and wanted to know how long it would take. I said, “We’ll win, the city will appeal, we’ll win there, the city will appeal again. It could go on for a while. It might be a year. It might be longer.”
Neo-Nazis are very impatient and thin-skinned.
Well, they are, but anybody who wanted to demonstrate for something they believed in would be irritated by the fact that the city can pass a patently unconstitutional law, basically silencing you for a year and a half while lawyers strike down that law. There’s something really outrageous about that, whether you’re the neo-Nazis or the Martin Luther King Jr. Association or somebody demonstrating for or against abortion, or whatever.
So Collin decides: To hell with this. He’ll go to the suburbs, where many of those who are governing Chicago actually live. He writes a letter on his neo-Nazi stationery to a dozen suburbs on Chicago’s outskirts announcing that he’s coming there to demonstrate against integration. All except one ignored his letter, because everybody knew who he was. The only suburb that responded was the town of Skokie. They responded, because the idea that neo-Nazis were going to come where a lot of Holocaust survivors lived was like a red flag to a bull, understandably.
This is only 30 or 35 years after World War II.
This is 1977. So it’s still very fresh and there are survivors living there who went through unimaginable horrors. But they got the wrong advice. They should’ve ignored these people, because they had no capacity to go to all these suburbs. But when Skokie said, “You better not come here. We won’t let you,” [the neo-Nazis] had an opportunity for publicity of the kind that they could never get.
Skokie passed three new laws. One was a law banning anybody from marching in uniform. That was later used against the Jewish war veterans who wanted to have a parade. They passed a ban on speech that the town found offensive. If that law had ever been upheld, every town in the South could have banned civil rights marches, which they found offensive. And they passed an insurance bond requirement, just like Chicago. So that did it. [The neo-Nazis] said, “We’re going to protest these laws in front of town hall.”
City officials in Skokie advised the Holocaust survivors to ignore them and go inside their houses when they come. Pull the blinds down, just stay quiet. Just hide. Several of them had had that advice before, when they lived in Poland in 1939. This was an unbelievably painful history repeating itself. They knew that you don’t hide from this; you demonstrate against it. This wasn’t Germany, this was America. National Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League came in. The whole thing escalated.
Taking this case was never internally controversial. We did a dozen or two dozen of these kinds of cases every year.
The ACLU famously supported the rights of Ku Klux Klan groups to march throughout the South.
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