In 1977 the United States Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision in favour of the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA). The Village of Skokie sued the NSPA to prevent the neo-Nazi organization from holding a rally. Skokie—home to over forty-thousand Jewish people, many of whom were Holocaust survivors—filed a complaint and asked the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, for an emergency injunction. The village rightly noted that the National Socialist Party “is an organization dedicated to the incitation of racial and religious hatred directed principally against individuals of Jewish faith.” Furthermore, the proposed rally was “a deliberate and willful attempt to exacerbate the sensitivities of the Jewish population in Skokie.” The case was heard in the local Cook County Court, and then appealed to the appellate and supreme courts of Illinois, both of which stayed the injunction. On 14 June 1977 the United States Supreme Court ruled that Skokie’s injunction violated the NSPA’s First Amendment rights. The Nazis were allowed to march.
The United States, unlike Canada, has no legal definition for “hate speech.” However distasteful the NSPA’s views, we must begrudgingly admit that the Supreme Court ruled correctly in the eyes of the law. Nevertheless, the decision seems misguided. Why would the highest court in the land protect an organization with racist, genocidal views? Perhaps because the authors of the American Constitution understood the danger in government censorship. Today, words and phrases which were commonplace just years ago are denounced by mainstream media and partisan politicians as hateful. Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s use of the term “sexual preference” just recently provoked the ire of progressives. Cornell University voted to change the name of the “English Department”, now deemed horribly offensive, to the inclusive “Department of Literatures in English.” Cornell English professors may think twice before cautioning their students against using the passive voice.
If hate speech exists, who should get to define it? If the government took the tack of our universities, it would be difficult for anyone to say anything at all. It is perfectly obvious that National Socialism is hateful, as is white supremacy and every other form of genuine racism. Indeed, the Jim Crow laws bore a marked resemblance to the Nuremburg Laws, and perhaps a society which bans Nazi rallies and burns Confederate flags is preferable to one which does not. The problem is that not every idea is as transparently evil as Nazism. If we do not accept free speech as an absolute and unassailable principle, what is to prevent us from gradually outlawing ideas which, while unpopular, are not evil? What happens when our definition of racism becomes so broad that it hampers free expression?
In recent years the range of acceptable belief seems to have narrowed in scope. When Bret Weinstein testified before Congress two years ago about The Evergreen State University, his statements appeared to be hyperbolic. After all Evergreen, alma mater of Matt Groening and Michael Richards, whose motto reads “Let it all hang out,” is hardly a serious academic institution, it might be maintained. The outraged mob who sought to oust Professor Weinstein would never be found at a “real” university like Cornell—Evergreen was hardly a microcosm of society. Fast forward to 2020 when Confederate statues have been toppled along with statues of Abraham Lincoln, the Virgin Mary and Mahatma Gandhi, and it is difficult to deny this professor’s prescience. Academics have been disciplined or fired for supposedly “racist” acts. Earlier this year Greg Patton of the University of Southern California was nearly terminated for saying a Chinese word (nèi ge) that “sounds like” the n-word. UCLA instructor Ajax Peris was investigated for quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.. Professor Gary Shank of Duquesne University was fired for leading a classroom discussion about why the n-word is problematic. These events are not isolated in the United States. In Canada, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship reports similar instances with an alarming frequency.
Weinstein warned Congress about big-tech overreach and censorship as well. As private businesses, social media companies are not bound by the First Amendment and may remove whatever they like. Incidentally, Facebook removed Weinstein’s account just days ago. Journalists have also been ousted from mainstream media corporations for expressing dissenting political views. Others, such as Bari Weiss and Barbara Kay have left of their own volition after realising that their views are no longer welcome.
Buildings, too, have been renamed. Woodrow Wilson College at Princeton University and Sir John A. Macdonald Hall at Queen’s University are two of many examples. Street names are another common target. It is true that streets have long been renamed to reflect changing societal values, and to remember the legacy of national heroes. After Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, for instance, many streets were christened in his honour. Perhaps this is what is happening now. Perhaps our changing linguistic landscape is not an Orwellian campaign against free expression. Perhaps cultural conservatives are overreacting, and we are finally picking up in 2020 where the Civil Rights Movement left off in 1968.
Or, perhaps something much more sinister is at play, and we are all boiling frogs. Our ostensibly progressive and tolerant cultural revolution resembles all other cultural revolutions conducted by supposed political messiahs. The tactics which the activists employ resemble the tactics of the very people who the activists claim to detest. In Nazi Germany it was common practice to rename city streets. On 1 November 1938, “Hallerstrasse” was renamed “Ostmarkstrasse.” The former street was named for Martin Haller, a Jewish architect who designed Hamburg’s city hall. Understanding the power of symbolism, the Nazis wished to remove any and all aspects of Judaism from German culture; these were the people who, according to Hitler, had lost Germany the First World War, hoarded wealth, and destroyed the economy. Similar accusations are levelled at the individuals whose names are now being erased from the public eye. These are the names of men who built a “corrupt” society, who were wealthy and privileged, and on whom our current struggles can be pinned.
In 1977 even neo-Nazis could say what they thought—for better or for worse. Now it seems that people who disagree with a self-flagellating interpretation of our history and our reality, or who welcome disagreement in the interest of open debate, are pariahs on university campuses, in newsrooms and in workplaces. We should look to National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie not as a miscarriage of justice, but rather as an example of our society’s integrity. To live in a free society is not to live in a perfect society, because perfection is unattainable. The societies which have sought after Utopia have always been totalitarian and have always failed universally. We will not be an exception to that rule.