essays

Mar 1, 1978

Freedom of Speech and the Nazis

“The problem in Skokie and elsewhere is precisely one of public property—government-owned property, paid for by taxes.”

A great deal of irritating attention has lately been given over to the issue of freedom of speech and the right of assembly as they apply to the case of the pathetic Nazi group in Chicago. In one sense, it would be better if the whole issue—and those Nazis in particular—were to sink into a gaping abyss. But since the issue has been flaring up for several months, it will perhaps benefit us to set forth a somewhat different perspective than those thus far trotted forth by the various contending parties.

The facts of the case are that a Chicago-based Nazi group decided last year to try to stir up some trouble—and some publicity, no doubt, since the two often go hand-in-hand—by holding a series of marches and demonstrations in nearby Skokie. The choice of Skokie was no accident: 40,000 of that town’s 70,000 inhabitants are Jewish, including 7000 survivors of the concentration camps. The Jewish community was justifiably outraged, and less justifiably, sought a court injunction to stop the proposed demonstrations. The injunction was granted, and then rescinded. A series of court battles ensued over the issues of freedom of speech and assembly, with the ACLU taking up the Nazi’s case on First Amendment grounds.

The most immediate effect of this action was an upheaval in the ACLU’s ranks: Nearly twenty percent of the ACLU’s national membership resigned or refused to renew as a result of its defense of the Nazis. Freedom of speech was one thing, they announced, but these Nazis are a clear and present danger to the Jewish community. They had to be stopped, freedom of speech or no freedom of speech!

We shall not devote much space rehashing the arguments for freedom of speech and assembly. Libertarians are First Amendment absolutists, and believe that we must tolerate the freedom of speech of even those we loathe. The Nazis, in short, have the same right to freedom of speech as anyone else, even though they are a disgustingly pitiful symbol of politicized fear and hatred.

But it would be a tragedy if the First Amendment were violated just because this rabble has decided to stir up some trouble. It is a tragedy that they have been able to use the First Amendment—which they, as National Socialists, loathe—to get some cheap publicity. They ought simply to be ignored, and the Jewish community involved really ought to try to find within itself the heroic amount of self-control needed to do just that. Then the Nazis group would hoot and holler, find no one listening, and sink back into the muck from whence it came.

But there is another issue here, lurking in the background: Why should the Jews have to put up with such stuff? Why should anyone expect them to sit still and suffer the abuses of this gang of white hoodlums, whose own existence gives the lie to their notions of racial superiority? What right do these Nazis have to come into their community with their poisonous “message”? By asking such a question, we come face to face with the true villain in the story: public property.

In a free society, free speech and assembly are derived from property rights. The right of free speech is not a licence for someone to break into one’s home and begin waxing eloquent, in one’s living room. In a free society, one has the right to hire a hall, or a park, or a printing press to get one’s message across. No one has the right to commandeer the property of another, to force it into the service of one’s “right to speak.” If Nazis were to break into a private meeting or violate private property rights to advance their odious views, those concerned would have every right to bounce them out on their ears, with relish.

The problem in Skokie and elsewhere is precisely one of public property—government-owned property, paid for by taxes. And it is the government which has its power limited by the Bill of Rights. The right to keep and bear arms, for example, is not a license to carry guns anywhere one chooses; property owners of all stripes have the right to set whatever rules of conduct they wish on their property. The right to keep and bear arms is a proscription againstgovernment action to violate individual rights. The same is true for freedom of speech and the right to assembly.

There is no better case than this one, the Nazis marching in Skokie, to demonstrate conclusively the sinister nature of public property, the contradictions and conflicts which result from government ownership. If streets and parks in Skokie were owned by the residents, then they rightfully could exclude the Nazis or anyone else without violating individual rights. But it is state property, hence restrictions on its use rightly are limited by constitutional restraints. The Nazis must be allowed to march.

The solution to this and to all other such conflicts is to begin taking seriously the preconditions of true community harmony and life: the sanctity and universality of private property, rightfully acquired. Already, there are a few private communities in this country which limit access to their grounds, and they need suffer neither from the rising crime rate which plagues this nation, nor from the insulting behavior of thuggish Nazis. They simply tell those with whom the members of the community do not wish to associate to get the hell off their property.

Such is the lesson to be learned from Skokie: If we really want to start solving some vitally important social questions, then we must take a long step backwards from relying on state power, and rely instead on that “social power,” as Albert Jay Nock called it, which flows from individualism, voluntary associations, and the rights of private property. State power leads inevitably to conflict.

As for the Nazis, our only choice here and now is either to march against them, or ignore their blustering, letting them fade back into richly-deserved obscurity. Above all, we must not give them the cause of freedom of speech to hold high. That spectacle, which we are seeing now in the courts of this nation, should be repugnant to all of us, whether Jewish or not.