Few legal disputes in the last decade captured public attention with such dramatic force as that involving a small band of Nazis and the village of Skokie. For well over a year, the case was seldom out of the news and often thought to merit front page coverage. It all began in the spring of 1977 when Frank Collin, the leader of the Chicago-based National Socialist Party of America, requested a permit to march in front of the Skokie village hall. The community, with a Jewish population of over 40,000, several thousand of whom had survived the Holocaust, mobilized all its resources against the planned demonstrations. Skokie insisted that the Nazis obtain liability and property insurance, which they could not, and then formalized the insurance requirement in a hastily promulgated ordinance covering all marches and demonstrations. Two additional sections were added, one prohibiting incitement to religious and racial hatred and the other the wearing of military-style uniforms in demonstrations. The town also sought an injunction in the Illinois state courts against the proposed march.
The American Civil Liberties Union advanced to defend the Nazis, first by directly opposing the injunction action and then by filing an independent lawsuit in federal district court attacking the constitutionality of the ordinance under the free speech clause of the first amendment. Much if not most of the public reaction was hostile to the ACLU's position. Many expressed outrage that the right of free speech was being invoked to protect the dissemination of Nazi propaganda, whether generally or in this particular locale. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the public's dissatisfaction was to be found in the ACLU's own membership rolls, which declined by 30,000 at an annual cost in lost revenues to the organization of half a million dollars (p. 79). The beleaguered free speech proponents, conversely, seemed incredulous at this public outcry: It was an "easy case" one heard again and again, though usually with a note of despair.
The ACLU position won in the end, of course. The Illinois Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit both concluded that the proposed demonstration (and the demonstrations covered by the ordinance) amounted to protected first amendment activity under the Supreme Court precedents. In June of 1978, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thus allowing the federal court's decision to stand. The decision of the Illinois court was never even challenged.
Civil Rights and Discrimination | First Amendment | Law
Lee C. Bollinger,
The Skokie Legacy: Reflections on an "Easy Case" and Free Speech Theory,
Mich. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/4133