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Aclu Defends Representing Nazis at Free Speech Convocation

June 14, 1978
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In a speech today before a pocked audience composed of the representatives of Jewish organizations, members of the press and interested individuals, Aryeh Neier, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “The oppressed know that they are the first people who will suffer if freedom is denied and therefore they must protect the freedom of others.” Clearly referring to the opposition of many Jewish groups to the controversial Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois scheduled for June 25, he went on to say that “Those of us who are most vulnerable must defend the freedom and rights even of our enemies.”

Neier was one of five participants in a heated panel discussion entitled “Free Speech for Racists and Totalitarians,” conducted as part of the ACLU-sponsored National Convocation on Free Speech today at the New York Hilton Hotel. The purpose of the debate, a highlight of this morning’s proceedings, was to “explore whether any limits may be placed on expressions of hate, advocacy of genocide or group libel,” in connection with the Skokie march.

Representing the ACLU position, which defends the First Amendment right of Nazi Party members to free speech, were Neier and David Goldberger, legal director of the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU and of the organization’s Illinois Division. Morris Abram, who served on the American prosecution staff at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, also supported the ACLU viewpoint. Arguing the other side of the question were William Kunstler, volunteer staff attorney for the Center of Constitutional Rights and Hadley Arkes, professor of political science at Amherst College. Roger Wilkins, urban affairs columnist for The New York Times, served as moderator of the discussion.

Reiterating the ACLU’s stand on this most difficult issue, which has led to the resignation of a number of ACLU members, Neier sharply distinguished between the right of individuals in a democratic society to express unpopular opinions and the limitations that must be imposed upon their freedom to take destructive political action. He noted that he personally would “condemn the Nazis with all vigor and with all vehemence.” But he affirmed his organization’s commitment to preserving free debate in a democratic society in the hope that the people, rather than an unduly oppressive government, will choose wisely among competing ideas.


Kunstler challenged the appropriateness of liberal organizations, such as the ACLU, assuming the defense of rightwing political groups such as the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, which reject the very Constitutional principles that are cited in their behalf. Asserting that he too supported the right of free speech for all citizens, he nevertheless argued, “Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that defending the Nazis today will protect us in the long run.”

Also denouncing the ACLU position was Arkes, who charged that “This organization no longer understands the promises on which all of our rights are founded.” He stressed that human beings, if they are to distinguish themselves from animals, must make moral judgements rather than regarding, as he accused the ACLU leadership of doing, all political opinions as being of equal weight.

Abram, who is also honorary president of the American Jewish Committee, agreed with the ACLU’s opponents that the Nazi ideology does not subscribe to the social contract theory. “But,” he said, “I would not use their methods to suppress them.”

Asked if the ACLU would defend the rights of Nazi marchers who carried placards reading, “Kill a Jew Today,” Goldberger, who has been at the center of the Skokie controversy as the attorney for the small Chicago Nazi group, responded, “The answer would have to be yes. The ACLU has defended the rights of similar demonstrators in the past.” He revealed that the ACLU has offered assistance to the Jewish community of Skokie in planning its counter-demonstration and expressed the hope that the expected “peaceable and stately” tone of the Jewish protest would effectively overshadow the “deeply offensive” Nazi rhetoric.

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