It was 1934 and fascism was on the march not only in Europe but in America. People who admired Adolf Hitler, who had taken power in Germany, formed Nazi organizations in the United States.
The American Civil Liberties Union, represented by lawyers who were Jewish, faced an existential question: Should the freedoms it stood for since its founding in 1920 apply even to racist groups that would like nothing more than to strip them away?
Ultimately, after much internal dissent, the ACLU decided: Yes, the principles were what mattered most. The ACLU would stand up for the free-speech rights of Nazis.
“We do not choose our clients,” the ACLU’s board of directors wrote in an October 1934 pamphlet called “Shall We Defend Free Speech for Nazis In America?” “Lawless authorities denying their rights choose them for us. To those who support suppressing propaganda they hate, we ask — where do you draw the line?”
Once again, the ACLU is wrestling with how to respond to a far-right movement in the U.S. whose rising visibility is prompting concerns from elected officials and activists.
In response to the deadly violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, the ACLU’s three California affiliates released a statement Wednesday declaring that “white supremacist violence is not free speech.”