My watershed moment came in 1977.
Until then, I was a good liberal happily mouthing platitudes about freedom of expression. Then neo-Nazis announced plans to march through Skokie, Ill., a village outside Chicago that was home to thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
My immediate reaction? “Oh, no you don’t.”
Nazis, like the Ku Klux Klan, represent ideas that are universally despised by people of good will in America, and I will concede that is not all of us.
Back then, Skokie sought to prohibit the march. The village argued that the display of the swastika promoted hate against Jews and others. It said the location of the march was chosen to inflict emotional harm on the survivors and the village feared there would be violence.
When the American Civil Liberties Union joined the case on the side of the brown shirts, I tore up my membership card.
I was not alone. Thousands of ACLU members, not just Jews, quit the civil rights organization. Yeah, sure, I reasoned (with many others, I’m sure) the bastards may deserve a defense but I don’t want to pay for it.
If the swastika could be banned on this occasion, on what other occasions could it be banned? What other symbols might be banned?, asked the ACLU.
As to emotional harm, how can that be gauged?
The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which held its nose but said the Nazis could march where they wanted to.
It was an enormous, if troubling, victory for the First Amendment.
In Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife’s remarks about outsiders bringing violence to Virginia, I heard distant echoes of Southern sheriffs prohibiting civil rights marches by so-called outside agitators.
Morally equivalent? No, but a common principle — quashing dissent.
In the end, the Nazis compromised and held a rally in Chicago rather than the march through Skokie, but a precedent had been established.
It took a while, but eventually I came to side with the Supreme Court, the ACLU — and the Nazis, even while I wanted to vomit.
The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular ideas because popular ideas don’t need protection. Statements that I regard as anti-American are protected. Hate speech is protected. The line is drawn at the point of advocating violence.
Now we come to Charlottesville, where the unsavory garbage bag of white supremacists, anti-Semites and fascists did the right thing by getting a parade permit and the authorities did the wrong thing by not adequately protecting them.
A march, even one with goons waving Nazi flags, is not “domestic terrorism.” It becomes terrorism only when they take an action, such as running a car into people, that creates physical harm.
The alleged driver, James Alex Fields, is a domestic terrorist.
On TV, I heard the pain in the voices from many people, especially blacks, about how emotionally terrifying the Confederate flag is to them. I get it, but if you allow the idea of something to terrify you, the bad guys are empowered.
The Bill of Rights requires us to suffer what we despise. The cost of freedom can be high.
The antidote for bad ideas is good ideas. Answer a march of hate with a march of love.
Neither the blindfold nor the gag is an instrument of democracy.