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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.

``We must prove that the crime was carried out maliciously and with the intent to intimidate a person because of race, color, or creed,'' Ms. Shuler says. Law-enforcement officials say Idaho's statute has discouraged racist acts since it was approved by the Legislature in 1983. The first case to be prosecuted under the law, involving alleged assault on a black man in Coeur d'Alene, is expected to come to trial this week.

Religious freedom. A theological system known as Christian Identity has become more prevalent among white-supremacist groups in recent years, say organizations that monitor racial extremists in the US. The Christian Identity movement, led by about a dozen self-appointed ministers scattered across the US, maintains that Jews are children of Satan and that whites are the true Israelites named in the Bible. The two sides, adherents say, are locked in a struggle for America and the world.

``Identity is a good excuse to be a racist and still be able to call yourself a Christian,'' says Bill Stanton of Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Ala. ``It's a more marketable way to sell these ideas.''

Courts so far have been understandably reluctant to determine whether Christian Identity is a socio-political veneer for racism or a valid religious movement, protected by the First Amendment. The flashpoint has been state prisons, where Christian Identity churches such as the Church of Jesus Christ Christian (Aryan Nations) have worked to recruit converts. Recent cases - in Arkansas, Missouri, Idaho, North Carolina, and Illinois - have involved the rights of such prison inmates to hold services, to receive and distribute racist church literature, and to be counseled by church ministers.

In general, the US Supreme Court has ruled that when prison security is at stake, courts should defer to the expert opinion of prison administrators, the ACLU's Mr. Goldstein says. Lower courts have made similar decisions in most of the recent court cases involving white-supremacist inmates. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled in an Arkansas case that the inmates' beliefs were religious in nature and therefore entitled to First Amendment protection.

Right to bear arms. In recent years, some states have enacted legislation to outlaw paramilitary training. Although the laws apply to all types of organizations, they have been particularly effective against militant white-supremacist groups.

The accumulation of weapons by such groups is ``alarming,'' going well beyond the right to bear arms, says Bill Baker, assistant director of public affairs for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He terms the stockpiling of weapons, coupled with an increasing propensity for violence among extremist groups, an explosive combination. The ACLU, which has studied the issue, says bans on paramilitary training are not inherently unconstitutional. The right to bear arms is a collective right of citizens of a state to maintain a militia, not an individual right, Goldstein says.

Individuals and states have found a number of other tools that may be used to restrain white-supremacist groups without violating their constitutional rights. Members of the Kootenai (Idaho) County Task Force on Human Relations are contemplating a civil suit against the Aryan Nations, in which the white-supremacist group could be liable for damages. Other states have taken very specific actions, outlawing cross burnings or prohibiting the wearing of masks and hoods.

In the end, however, the Ku Klux Klan and like-minded groups are constitutionally entitled to march, preach race hatred, put racist films on cable television, advertise in gun magazines, and distribute literature.

Last of three articles; the others appeared Jan. 12 and 13.

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