Limits of Free Speech in the US: Skokie vs. Nazis (US Supreme Court Ruling)

What are the limits of free speech in the United States?  When I was in school, the classical example was that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, because it will cause panic and people can get hurt.  There are also other limits.  For example, I am free to write a positive or negative review of an online casino website, but if my review contains outright lies, for example, “This online casino website rigs their slot machines so nobody is a winner.” and I have no evidence to back up that false claim, that is called slander and that is not protected free speech.

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But what about hate speech?  Every other day, we are hearing about this tweet or that tweet that President Trump posted that is being censored for “false statements” and “lies”.  This is now even including tweets and videos that President Trump is reposting.  Has the United States always been this hyperbolic with regards to speech that its citizens say?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane … to the time of 1977 in Skokie, IL. and the famous Supreme Court case of “Skokie vs. the Nazis”.

What is the “Nationalist Socialist Party of America vs. Village of Skokie, 1977 Supreme Court Case” and why is it so important?

In 1976, Frank Collin and the NSPA wanted to demonstrate in Chicago.  They applied for a license to do so, and they were denied a license to demonstrate in Chicago.  On October 4, 1976, Frank Collin sent out letters to 10 different park districts in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago, including Skokie, IL.  All of them threw Frank Collin’s request letter into the shredder, except for Skokie, which sent him a letter back. 

Skokie had a huge holocaust survivor population at the time, so they took the request personally and reacted personally.  If Skokie had thrown the request letter into the shredder as all of the other communities did, it would have been a non-issue.  But emotions took over, and logic went out the window.

At first, Skokie was going to allow them to demonstrate, but give them as little publicity as possible.  But after the community found out what was happening, they were angry and did not want the NSPA to demonstrate.  On April 27, 1977, the village attorney sought an injunction to prevent the demonstration.

On May 2, 1977, the village of Skokie passed three ordinances intended to prevent any future NSPA requests.  One stated that people could not wear military-style uniforms during demonstrations.  The two others prevented the distribution of materials containing hate speech and required a $350,000 insurance bond to hold demonstrations.  This rendered it impossible for the NSPA to hold the event.

Collins claimed infringement on his 1st amendment rights.  On March 20, 1977, Collins notified the Chief of Police and the Park District of the NSPA’s intention to protest and his protected 1st amendment rights to freedom of speech on May 1, 1977.  The letter stated that 30-50 white men would demonstrate with signs that included phrases like, “White Free Speech”, “Free Speech for White Americans”, and “Free Speech for White American Men”.  

On June 22, 1977, Collins sent another letter stating his intention to hold demonstrations on July 4 from 12:00 – 12:30 pm.

On April 28, 1977, the Village Attorney filed an injunction in the Cook County Courts for an injunction.  By this time, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was defending Collins and the NSPA demonstrators.  

The injunction said that the NSPA could not wear uniforms or display swastikas.  

The ACLU appealed on behalf of NSPA, but both the Illinois Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court refused to expedite the case or to stay the injunction (allow the protest to go on as scheduled).

So the case went to the United States Supreme Court.  

For a bit, this part of the case bounced back and forth between the Illinois Supreme Court and the Appellate courts.

At the same time, the case moved through the federal courts.  

The first district court ruled that the Village’s ordinance was declared unconstitutional.  The Seventh Circuit Court of appeals was divided on the case.

The US Supreme Court denied further review of the case.

What finally happened in Skokie in the summer of 1978?

Nothing.  Chicago finally said that Collins could do his demonstration in Chicago, as he originally planned, and Collin did his demonstration in uniform in Chicago.

What was the reaction?  About a dozen Nazis were on the stage trying to say their hate speech, while thousands of people did a counter-demonstration in the audience screaming at the top of their lungs.

The end result was that nobody could hear one single hate-filled word that the NSPA said, and the police had to be present during the whole time to “protect the Nazis.”  

So, yes, the Nazis were allowed to say their hate-filled speech, but through the free speech of the other side, the NSPA hate-filled message was drowned out by the other side.

So how does this relate to today?

This whole notion that if both sides are given the freedom to speak, that things will work themselves out, has gone out the window.  

In 1977, the public “forum” was the shopping malls, the public squares in the town center, and the public parks.  In all of these areas, freedom of speech was protected.  Anybody was allowed to say anything as long as they got a permit, which was more designed for crowd control and warnings the police than anything else.  But free speech was always guaranteed.

As the ACLU and the NSPA taught us, there is no concept of speech being so hateful that it can be denied.

But people do not meet in public squares to discuss and debate politics anymore (or even exchange favorite food recipes).  They meet on public forums like Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc.  But these places are not public forums (like a government-owned public park), they are privately owned businesses.  

So where are the publicly owned, taxpayer paid for, forums?  They don’t exist. There are none.

Why are today’s public forums not public forums?

When these companies first came out, they promised to be neutral.  Similar to a phone company being neutral.  A phone company allows anybody to say whatever they want over telephone lines (including conference calls) with zero restrictions on free speech.  We call these types of companies public utilities. 

The companies provide the infostructure, and they make a profit.  And as long as these private companies do not start to restrict services, for example, telling a black person they can’t have phone service, because they are black — or censoring a black person’s conversation just because they are black, the government allows these utilities to remain in private hands.

But Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc. are censoring speech they do not like.  How are two doctors supposed to discuss and debate the pros and cons of different medical treatments for COVID-19 patients if these companies are allowed to censor all discussion and debate?  

Did anybody ever think that we would get to a point in US history where instead of the hateful speech being discussed being between NSPA (Nazis) and Holocaust Survivors it is instead between two doctors with different views on how to treat a COVID-19 patient during a worldwide pandemic?   

Since when are two doctors with equal medical credentials discussing technical medical knowledge considered hateful speech?  But yet at the same time, NSPA dressing up in NAZI uniforms and displaying swastika flags in a community filled with Holocaust survivors is considered “protected free speech”?

What is the solution?

If Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and are unable to protect free speech then those places need to be declared public forums that are 100% protected by the US Constitution and put under government (taxpayer) control.

But the government shouldn’t take over private businesses? 

Well, then Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, and need to get their act together and return to running those sites as public forums with all of the rights and protections that are given to any other public forum.

No different than a bunch of hate-filled Nazis that want to demonstrate in a public park located in a community of Holocaust survivors.  

If the ACLU believes that the Nazis hate-filled speech is protected speech, then President Trump’s (and anybody else’s) speech is also protected — regardless of if a person agrees or disagrees with that speech. 

Google, Facebook, Twitter, …  if you have a problem with that, then blame the Soros sponsored ACLU that set standards in their Supreme Court case of the National Socialist Party of America vs. the Village of Skokie in 1977.

Freedom of speech works.  Censorship, no matter how altruistic you think you are being, does not work.  It is not what the United States or any free nation is built upon.  Censorship is what dictatorships are built on because the dictators are unable to defend their ideas in a truly public forum.

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