He has a glittering civil liberties résumé: co-founder of Human Rights Watch, president of the Open Society Foundations for nearly 20 years, professor of civil rights law.
But before all of that, Aryeh Neier was the executive director of the ACLU during one of its most turbulent moments: when it came to the defense of neo-Nazis trying to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly in Skokie, Illinois in 1977.
The ACLU’s defense of the Nazis in that case cost it thousands of members and fostered a national conversation about free speech in the modern era. To this day, when we talk about the breadth of America’s free speech protections, we often refer back to that Skokie case and say, “Even the Nazis get free speech rights here.”
In this week’s episode, we speak with Neier about that time and about his seminal 1979 book, Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom.
Neier wasn’t expecting the controversy the case generated. Taking these cases, he said, was “a routine matter” for the ACLU at the time. In 1940, for example, the organization put out a leaflet titled “Why We Defend Civil Liberty Even for Nazis, Fascists and Communists.” But as news of the controversy spread internationally, Neier thought it was necessary to write a book to explain why he—a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany—and the ACLU took the case.
“[The controversy] took me by surprise because I mistakenly thought that most ACLU members knew our practice of defending free speech for anyone, including the Nazis,” said Neier.
“I think that abstractly, almost everybody will say they uphold free speech. But I think when it gets down to specific cases and forms of free speech that are particularly offensive, then quite a lot of people are not willing to apply the abstract principle.”
In addition to Skokie, our conversation touches on why the defense of civil liberties shouldn’t be placed on the political spectrum, Neier’s formative years fighting communist speaker bans on college campuses, and why free speech can’t be blamed for the violence in Weimar Germany, Rwanda, and Bosnia in the 20th century.
The conversation also veers toward what Neier sees as one of the greatest threats to free speech today: political correctness.
“I'm a believer in equality, equality on the basis of race, equality on the basis of gender, and so forth,” said Neier. “I worry that sometimes the people who are concerned with those issues seek to restrict speech by antagonists of those positions. I think it’s important to defend free speech in all circumstances—there shouldn’t be any exceptions.”
This episode caps off So to Speak’s series on the topic of “defending my enemy,” which explores why people who vehemently oppose certain ideas nonetheless staunchly defend the right of others to express them. The series was inspired by Neier’s book.
A transcript of the full interview with Neier can be found on our website. (Note: This is a rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.)
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