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Column: The left should want the ACLU to keep defending awful speech

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09.06.2021

I have a foggy childhood memory of being home sick from school and watching the 1981 movie “Skokie.” It tells the story of a planned neo-Nazi march through Skokie, a suburb full of Holocaust survivors, and the Jewish American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, based on David Goldberger, who defended the Nazis on free speech grounds.

Little of the film has remained with me except for awe at the ACLU’s position. The odiousness of those it defended proved the purity of its devotion to the First Amendment. I’ve revered the organization ever since.

It would be hard to make a similar movie about Charlottesville, Virginia, where the ACLU helped an alt-right leader retain a permit to rally downtown in August 2017. In retrospect, part of the reason the Skokie case seemed clear-cut, at least to my childhood self, was that the Nazis posed little physical danger to anyone. There were only 20 or so of them, and they were utterly marginal; no leading political figure called them very fine people. The stakes in the Skokie debate were symbolic. In Charlottesville, where a white nationalist riot led to a woman’s murder, they were life and death.

Thinking about the contrast, I can understand why the free speech libertarianism that I grew up with has fallen out of fashion. As The New York Times’ Michael Powell reported in a fascinating article last weekend, there’s a divide at........

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