We should not underestimate the power of one high-profile controversy to shape a generation’s perception of free speech.
In 1977, when neo-Nazis sought to rally in Skokie, Illinois, then home to thousands of Holocaust survivors, they were blocked by Skokie village officials. The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to successfully defend the neo-Nazis’ rights to free speech and assembly — but not without significant cost.
The ACLU lost many members and was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Over time, however, the group recovered and its principled defense of First Amendment rights in Skokie came to be widely admired.
Forty years later, the ACLU again stepped up to defend First Amendment rights, this time for white nationalists seeking to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the last minute, local officials attempted to move the rally away from the statue, so the rally organizers went to court, represented by the ACLU, to argue the move was viewpoint discriminatory.
A judge agreed, and on August 11, 2017, the white nationalists arrived in Charlottesville. Over the next two days, violence and tragedy ensued. One person was murdered.
Unlike the Skokie case, the ACLU’s actions in Charlottesville are not widely applauded — despite the cases’ legal similarities. In fact, the ACLU later appeared to back away from its position in the Charlottesville case, and a 2018 survey of 2,225 college students found that 35 percent said the event changed how they think about speech and expression.
But in a new documentary I co-directed and produced called “Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story,” a group of old-school civil libertarians, many of whom were involved in the Skokie case decades earlier, explain why it was the police response, not the First Amendment, that is to blame for what transpired in Charlottesville. The film also shows how the ACLU made the right call in taking that case — regardless of the tragic outcome — just as it made the right call in Skokie.
“Mighty Ira” seeks to bridge the gap between the two cases and remind a new generation of activists (the Charlottesville generation) why an older generation of civil libertarians (the Skokie generation) protected the First Amendment in the way they did.
To do so, our film profiles one civil libertarian, Ira Glasser, who was the ACLU’s Executive Director from 1978 to 2001.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Glasser was first exposed to issues of civil rights and liberties at the age of nine when he saw Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in 1947. Nearly two decades later, an unlikely meeting with Senator Robert F. Kennedy led Ira to his first job at the ACLU, where he remained for the rest of his 34-year career.
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Glasser, now 82, understands the importance of defending neutral principles, even in the most difficult of circumstances: If the government gains the power to censor neo-Nazis, civil rights activists and [insert your preferred cause] could be next.
Indeed, when the neo-Nazis first tried to rally in Chicago’s Marquette Park (before Skokie), the Chicago Park District passed a prohibitive $350,000 insurance bond requirement for such rallies. The result was to effectively bar both the neo-Nazis and the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition, a civil rights group, from rallying.
And later, when Skokie passed an ordinance to prohibit rallying in military-style uniforms as a means to bar the neo-Nazis from rallying in their town, the ordinance had the effect of preventing the Jewish war veterans from also rallying.
It’s easy, when confronted with controversial or even offensive speakers, to dispense with principle in favor of political expediency. That was as true in 1977 as it is today.
But younger generations may actually be more eager than previous generations to censor: A recent survey of 20,000 college students found that a majority of students supported banning seven out of eight different types of controversial speakers from college campuses.
Glasser’s generation helped establish the broadest protection for freedom of speech in human history, but they are fast retiring from the barricades. Some are no longer with us.
It’s a generation that saw the essentiality of free speech and that also knew it had to engage opponents in debate, not retreat into ideological echo chambers — something Glasser did repeatedly on “Firing Line” with his intellectual sparring partner and friend, William F. Buckley Jr.
But Glasser’s was the Skokie generation. It’s not clear the Charlottesville generation — my generation — understands the history that led Glasser and his colleagues to take their positions and stake out their values.
The Skokie generation largely retired before the rise of the internet. Their ideas, their writings and their life’s work are harder to discover. That’s why we created “Mighty Ira.” It tells the story of one man, a fading generation and the timeless value of free speech.
Nico Perrino is co-director and Senior Producer of “Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story” and Vice President of Communications for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“Mighty Ira” is available to stream on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube Movies. The film is also available in virtual cinema through Angelika Film Center. On Oct. 27, “Mighty Ira” will be available on DVD and Blu-ray via Amazon, MovieZyng, and other retailers (pre-orders available).