Free speech then and now

Michael Ledeen’s insightful take on the Charlottesville violence includes this passage:

Have you seen the old movie “Skokie”? It’s about a Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, and stars Danny Kaye. He plays himself, a Jew very upset that monsters are going to parade through the streets of his town, and he resolves to fight it. Which we all applaud.

But the film stresses that the Nazis are entitled to march, just as the Nazis were entitled to demonstrate in Charlottesville. And when they do, the rest of us should denounce them. As we do, with rare exceptions. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Danny Kaye was the quintessential Hollywood liberal of his time. “Skokie’s” emphasis on the right of the Nazis to march reflected a core liberal belief. In that era, many liberals rejected the notion that a march should be banned because it made others feel unsafe, even though, unlike so much of what is deemed unsafe today, the Skokie march actually would have had that effect (it did not take place, the Nazis moved it Chicago). Skokie was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.

The racists and anti-Semites who gathered in Charlottesville had a right to do so. Those who protested against the rally also had that right, as long as they didn’t interfere with the free speech rights of the racists and anti-Semites. Neither side had the right physically to attack members of the other side. It will be up to the authorities to determine who attacked whom. There’s a good chance that some members of both sides will be found culpable.

Before concluding, I want to praise the ACLU for defending the right of the racists and anti-Semites to protest in Charlottesville. The city of Charlottesville had tried to revoke the protest permit of one of the rally organizers, Jason Kessler. However, the ACLU came to his legal defense, arguing that the city was trying unlawfully to restrict his speech based on content.

A U.S. district court judge agreed. He ruled that Kessler “has shown that he will likely prove that the decision to revoke his permit was based on the content of his speech.” The judge noted that the city revoked Kessler’s permit but left in place the permits issued to counter-protestors.

The ACLU’s stance won’t sit well with its donor base, I assume. But the ACLU is being consistent. It has defended the Ku Klux Klan, Milo Yiannopolous, as well as radical Islamists. And, in perhaps its most famous case, it defended the Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie 40 years ago.