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Collin v. Smith: 1977

Collin v. Smith: 1977

Plaintiff: Frank Collin, on behalf of the National Socialist Party of America
Defendant: Albert Smith, as president of the Village of Skokie, Illinois
Plaintiff Claims: That Skokie had illegally prevented the American Nazis from holding a political march
Chief Defense Lawyers: Gilbert Gordon and Harvey Schwartz
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: David A. Goldberger
Judge: Bernard M. Decker
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Hearing: December 2, 1977
Decision: That Skokie could not prevent the Nazis from marching

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite the fact that the Nazis had deliberately chosen a heavily Jewish community to march in, the courts stuck firm to the First Amendment principle that unpopular groups must be allowed to express their political opinions.

Prior to World War II, there was a small yet fairly significant Nazi movement in the United States, which grew out of the German-American Bund. After the war, the movement was discredited, and survived only due to the leadership of George Lincoln Rockwell, who was assassinated in 1967. As with other fringe groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, hatred and prejudice kept the National Socialist Party of America alive with a small but vocal membership. In the mid1970s, to generate publicity and attract new members, Nazi leader Frank Collin targeted the Chicago, Illinois, suburb of Skokie as a site for a series of marches and demonstrations.

Over half of Skokie's 70,000 residents were Jewish, and many were survivors of German concentration camps. Seeing Nazi marchers and the swastika was bound to bring back tragic memories. Skokie was initially successful in getting an injunction against any Nazi marches from the Illinois state courts, but the Supreme Court summarily dismissed the injunction as unconstitutionally infringing on the Nazis' First Amendment right to political expression. Determined to protect its Jewish residents, on May 2, 1977, Skokie decided to thwart the Nazis by passing a series of municipal ordinances. The ordinances required any group wishing to stage a public demonstration to obtain $350,000 in liability and property insurance, and forbade the dissemination of racist literature and the wearing of military-style uniforms by group members during such demonstrations. The Nazis promptly took Albert Smith, president of the Village of Skokie, and other municipal officials to court.

Nazis Must be Allowed to March

Ironically, both sides were represented by Jewish attorneys. David A. Goldberger from the American Civil Liberties Union represented the Nazis; Gilbert Gordon and Harvey Schwartz represented Smith and Skokie. The case was heard before U.S. District Court Judge Bernard M. Decker in Chicago on December 2, 1977.

Collin was brutally honest about his party's beliefs. He stated that the Nazis believed blacks were inferior, and that Jews were involved in an international financial and communist conspiracy. Further, Collin testified that the Nazis deliberately copied the military uniform style of the notorious "Brownshirts" of Hitler's Third Reich:

We wear brown shirts with a dark brown tie, a swastika pin on the tie, a leather shoulder strap, a black belt with buckle, dark brown trousers, black engineer boots, and either a steel helmet or a cloth cap, depending on the situation, plus a swastika arm band on the left arm and an American flag patch on the right arm.

On February 23, 1978, Decker issued his decision. Stating that "it is better to allow those who preach racial hate to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear," Decker held that the ordinances violated the First Amendment and were unenforceable.

Skokie appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and the case was argued on April 14, 1978. On May 22, 1978, the Seventh Circuit refused to overturn Decker's decision:

No authorities need be cited to establish the proposition, which the Village does not dispute, that First Amendment rights are truly precious and fundamental to our national life. Nor is this truth without relevance to the saddening historical images this case inevitably arouses. It is, after all, in part the fact that our constitutional system protects minorities unpopular at a particular time or place from government harassment and intimidation, that distinguishes life in this country from life under the Third Reich.

Finally, Skokie asked the Supreme Court to review the case, a procedure called "petition for a writ of certiorari." On October 16, 1978, the justices of the Supreme Court voted to deny certiorari, and so Decker's original decision was upheld. Justices Harry Blackmun and Byron White, however, dissented. Blackmun and White felt that the court should make an official pronouncement on the important First Amendment issues in the Skokie litigation, and not just let the lower court decision stand by default:

[We] feel that the present case affords the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in the context of the facts that this record appears to present, there is no limit whatsoever to the exercise of free speech. There indeed may be no such limit, but when citizens assert, not casually but with deep conviction, that the proposed demonstration is scheduled at a place and in a manner that is taunting and overwhelmingly offensive to the citizens of that place, that assertion, uncomfortable though it may be for judges, deserves to be examined. It just might fall into the same category as one's "right" to cry "fire" in a crowded theater, for "the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done." [Quoting Schenck v. U.S., see separate entry]

There was now nothing to prevent Collin and the Nazis, victorious in the courts, from marching in Skokie. Collin, however, abruptly called the march off. Declaring that his aim had been to generate "pure agitation to restore our right to free speech," Collin proclaimed the whole affair a moral victory for the Nazis and never marched in Skokie. Whether the Skokie affair was a victory for the Nazis is debatable, but it was certainly a victory for the right of every minority group, no matter how unpopular, to express its political views without government interference.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bartlett, Jonathan. The First Amendment in a Free Society. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1979.

Downs, Donald Alexander. Nazis in Skokie: Freedom, Community, and the First Amendment. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Gross, Alan. "I Remember Skokie: a Cultural Defense." Chicago (February 1981): 90-97.

Hamlin, David. The Nazi/Skokie Conflict: a Civil Liberties Battle. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.

Neier, Aryeh. Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979.

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