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The day I sided with the Nazis': Columnist explains why Americans must allow speech they despise

A Black Lives Matter group calls for the banning of all Confederate symbols in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

Stu Bykofsky — a longtime columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News — penned a piece in the wake of the deadly clash of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend with a provocative title: "The day I sided with the Nazis."

But the content is far from what the title may initially suggest.

Bykofsky wrote that he was "a good liberal happily mouthing platitudes about freedom of expression" until neo-Nazis announced plans in the late 1970s to march through Skokie, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

He said his first reaction was, “Oh, no you don’t.”

More from Bykofsky's column:

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.

But the ACLU asked an important question, he wrote: If the swastika could be banned on this occasion, on what other occasions could it be banned? And then, of course, with such a precedent intact, what other symbols might be banned at the hands of the government? As to emotional harm inflicted by a swastika, Bykofsky continued, how can that be gauged?

When the U.S. Supreme Court finally said the Nazis could march where they wanted to, Bykofsky called it an "enormous, if troubling, victory for the First Amendment."

More from Bykofsky:

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.

He observed that in Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife’s remarks about outsiders bringing violence to Virginia he "heard distant echoes of southern sheriffs prohibiting civil rights marches by so-called 'outside agitators.'” And therein festers a "common principle," Bykofsky said: "Quashing dissent."

He added that in Charlottesville 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."

Furthermore, Bykofsky said a march — "even one with goons waving Nazi flags" — doesn't qualify as “domestic terrorism" until action takes place that causes physical harm.

"On TV, I heard the pain in the voices from many people, especially blacks, about how emotionally terrifying the Confederate flag is to them," he said. "I get it, but if you allow the idea of something to terrify you, the bad guys are empowered."

He concluded:

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.

One last thing…
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