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White supremacists test limits of US rights to free speech, assembly

By Cheryl SullivanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 1987



Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

A lot of people in northern Idaho were fed up. Ever since a militant white-supremacist organization settled in a few miles outside of this resort town, there had been nothing but trouble. Worse, the tiny group was portraying the area as a haven for white supremacists - and, because of all the news media attention, the label was starting to stick in the minds of the American public.

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So, when three men linked to the Aryan Nations were arrested for planting three bombs that exploded in Coeur d'Alene on Sept. 29 (there were no injuries), local resentment spilled out. The three were taunted as they were led into court for a bond hearing in nearby Moscow, and one protester held up a sign reading ``Hate Group Leave Idaho.''

The public outrage here was not uncommon, according to Bob Hughes, a mediator in the Seattle office of the United States Justice Department's Community Relations Service. ``The initial response of communities that feel victimized by such groups is, `Get them out of town,''' he says. ``Of course, this is a constitutional society, and you can't do that.''

Indeed, members of white-supremacist groups enjoy the rights spelled out by the US Constitution just as any other Americans - freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom to practice their religion.

But where does free speech end and racial harassment begin? Should the Ku Klux Klan be allowed to hold a cross-burning in a black neighborhood, an act that could terrorize or intimidate local residents? Do white-supremacist prison inmates have the right to hold racist ``religious'' ceremonies, even if the warden believes such events may jeopardize prison security?

These and other questions constitute ``a great civics lesson'' on constitutional freedoms, says Marilyn Shuler, director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission in Boise. While coming under local pressure not to allow extremist groups to hold rallies or meetings on public property (such as the statehouse steps or the public schools), ``the state cannot overreact against them,'' she says. The state, she adds, must be careful not to discriminate against a group simply because it advocates unpopular views.

That position is shared by the American Civil Liberties Union. ``The Constitution allows people, we believe, to do abhorrent and repulsive things,'' says David Goldstein, staff lawyer with the ACLU's national legal department. Ten years ago the ACLU's defense of the right of American Nazis to march through the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Ill., cost it thousands of members.

But states can exert some control over hate-group activity. State legislation that addresses racial, ethnic, or religious bigotry has proliferated in the 1980s, says Joan Weiss of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence. What is the best route for states to take? ``There's not one right answer,'' she says. ``Each state has to look at the kinds of issues it is confronting and make a determination about where the weaknesses in its laws are.'' In so doing, states must weigh the following constitutional guarantees:

Free speech. Speech - including messages that malign religious and racial minorities - is constitutionally protected, unless it incites violence or makes violence imminent. Actions that stem from the exercise of free speech are not necessarily protected.

At least eight states, including Idaho, have adopted laws to stiffen the penalties for crimes motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic bias. The misdemeanor crime of defacing private property - by scrawling a swastika on a synagogue, for example - could become a felony under Idaho's malicious harassment law.