After surviving unspeakable horrors at nine different concentration camps during the Holocaust, Ben Stern, a Jewish man from Poland, never thought he would have to face Nazis again.
In 1946, after World War II (1939-45), he and his wife emigrated from Europe to the United States to start new lives. They settled in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and spent the next 30 years raising a family.
But Stern’s quiet life was upended in 1977. To his shock, the Nazis were back—specifically, a small group of American neo-Nazis called the National Socialist Party of America. (Neo-Nazis advocate hatred of Jews, non-whites, and other minorities.) They planned to hold a rally—complete with Nazi uniforms and flags bearing swastikas—in the largely Jewish suburb.
The town of Skokie issued an order prohibiting the demonstration. But the neo-Nazis found an unlikely ally in the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.), a legal rights group that took their case. The dispute reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which helped clear the way for a lower court to rule that the neo-Nazis had a right to march under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.
The landmark case helped clarify that all people have the right to rally publicly, no matter how offensive their views. But now, 40 years later, some legal experts are starting to question whether all speech—including hateful speech—deserves constitutional protection. The debate has come under renewed focus in the aftermath of a violent white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, which left one person dead and several others injured.
American laws are “the most protective of free speech of any nation on Earth and any nation in history,” says Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a free speech legal expert. But the question, he says, is “should free speech be extended to speakers whose purpose and message is to deny free speech, people who want to overthrow the government by violence and—if successful—bring about the end of free speech?”