For years the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has charged headlong to the defense of freedoms whenever the organization felt those liberties were threatened. And in the process it has had as clients a variety of individuals and groups whose views span the political spectrum.
But seldom has the ACLU's decision to defend the right to express a viewpoint fostered such animosity as its decision on april 27, 1977, to defend the right of self-proclaimed Nazi Frank collin to stage a rally on the steps of the village hall in skokie, Ill. -- a community with a large Jewish population, about 7,000 of whom are survivors of the Holocaust.
Author David Hamlin was executive director of the Illinois chapter of the ACLU during the turbulent year of court actions and national controversy. His book represents an interesting insider's view of the affair.
He begins by analyzing Collin and his organization, such as it was. Hamlin estimates the loose-knit group never counted more than about two dozen among its membership. And in conducting this initial assessment, Hamlin puts into stark focus not only the onerousness of Collin's philosophy, but the illusion of his strength and following that became such an obssession to so many people. He writes:
"The illusion [that the Collin group was strong or important] rests on the symbols of nazism. Without those symbols, Frank Collin would not merit a second glance. With them, however, Collin accomplishes exactly the same result that any good magician attains: misdirection. The audience's attention is misdirected, forced away from reality and toward the illusion, by the symbols of fascism.
"The power of those images is such that the audience begins, almost immediately, to concentrate on them. The concentration grows with each new recollection and each newly awakened fear until, at last, the awesome enormity of nazism becomes the only thing the audience sees at all."
Hamlin adds that Collin's illusion was not aimed at the public at large, but at himself. Collin's real name is Frank Cohn. He is the son of a Jew who survived the Holocaust.
In this analysis, Hamlin consistently repudiates the ideas Collin espouses. But as becomes clear throughout the rest of the book, Collin still had a constitutional right to express those ideas, despite the legal gymnastics employed by the Village of Skokie and others in trying to exercise prior censorship over Collin.
According to Hamlin's account, the proposition that "it could happen here" was contradicted in this case by the fewness of Collin's backers and the overwhelmingly large number of Collin's opponents at the few rallies he finally held.
What follows the analysis of Collin and his group is a detailed description of the events that led to Collin's decision to hold his rally in Skokie, the village's reaction, and the numerous court battles that ultimately ended in the rejection of the village's position.
The book is relatively short -- about 180 pages, in large print, so it makes for quick reading. The tone varies from one of vehement justification and defensiveness over the ACLU's decision to take the case to a growing sense of compassion for the villagers.
At one point Hamlin admits a striking lack of that compassion. In a moment of frustration and anger, he blurted to a reporter, "The Village of Skokie is shredding the First Amendment."
"For months," he writes, "after I made that statement, people would attack me with it, arguing (quite properly) that it betrayed a lack of sensitivity to the specific issues of the controversy. . . . The damage which that stance generated -- in resignations, in hostility, in personal anguish -- was as great as any generated by the actual controversy itself."
Such introspection might serve as a guidepost for a variety of single-issue groups as they wage sometimes myopic battles for their causes.
This book is not a detached analysis of the Skokie case. As such, it might not satisfy readers who want a less passionate, more objective approach to the story. But now, when reports are surfacing about the growth in size of various hate groups, including the American Nazi Party, the st ory of this battle over free speech is timely.