By Rosie Alger
The First Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights protects the right to peaceably assemble. For years, protesters and demonstrators have had to fight to maintain this right, especially when their sentiment is anti-government or anti-police.
Famously, protesters during the Civil Rights era were sprayed with firehoses, or otherwise attacked and disbanded. Today we see these acts as a huge violation of citizen rights in the U.S., but the conversation around protesting continues. As racial violence and anger rises to the surface of society once more, white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are starting to flood the streets. Should these groups have the same protection to assemble? If groups are advocating for violence and prejudice, are their demonstrations truly peaceful?
There is a delicate balance at play. If officials decide that such groups should be limited in their ability to assemble, who is to stop other and more amicable groups from also being silenced? Our ability to speak freely, challenge the status quo, and unite for a cause are fundamental qualities for a successful democracy.
In fact, hate groups have historically been protected in their rights to free speech and free assembly. According to an article by Lincoln University, “The KKK’s right to assemble peaceably was secured by the famous 1977 case of National Socialist Party v. Skokie, in which the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that the First Amendment prohibited officials of Skokie, Ill., from banning a march by the National Socialist Party. Skokie is a Chicago suburb that is home to many Holocaust survivors. One federal judge reasoned that ‘it is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear.’”
The ACLU has protected groups across a wide range of ideologies, including more deplorable causes like the KKK. In 2012, the ACLU defended the KKK when the state tried to block the group from adopting a stretch of highway in Georgia. As much as they may dislike the KKK’s rhetoric and beliefs, this instance was a clear violation of rights, which the ACLU has sworn to protect.
The recent turmoil in Charlottesville, Va., however, as well as an increasingly visible landscape of racial violence, has caused many to question the value of protecting these groups. If protecting hate groups leads to an increased propensity for hate crimes and racial bias, whose rights are we really valuing? According to judicial precedence, one person’s rights extend only until they impede on another’s ability to maintain their own rights.
Sputnik International said, “The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in defense of the ‘Unite the Right’
rally organizers, who were initially denied a permit to hold a rally against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The ACLU lawsuit success- fully leveraged Charlottesville into giving the ‘Unite the Right’ rally a permit. The protests later turned violent when a car rammed a crowd of left-wing counter protesters, killing one and injuring 19. The alleged driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., was photographed participating in a Vanguard America (a white supremacist group) protest.” Do we jeopardize the safety of marginalized groups to honor the rights of those who wish to harm them?
After the demonstration in Charlottesville, which led to the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer, the ACLU decided to decline to further defend demonstrators who insist on bringing weapons to rallies and protests.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “The events of Charlottesville require any judge, any police chief and any le- gal group to look at the facts of any white supremacy protests with a much finer comb. If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else. This is not a new juncture for the ACLU. We have a longstanding history of defending the rights of groups we detest and with whom we fundamentally disagree.”
I do not think that any organization should be completely silenced. I do think, however, that officials should think critically about the kind of environment that is created when hate groups like the KKK, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis are allowed to gather in the streets, with weapons on display, and chant slogans about killing or harming minorities like Jewish people and people of color.
Many states have a procedure for getting a permit before being allowed to hold a rally or demonstration. Perhaps the permit process should entail more deliberation or restrictions to ensure that gatherings remain peaceful. After all, how peaceful can you truly be when you are claiming the swastika as a symbol of your beliefs?