Freedom of Speech: When Push comes to Shove

Cover Image: detail of the Cable Street Mural, Tower Hamlets, UK.

Good liberals in the west take for granted certain essential rights: the right to say what we believe, the right to gather in public, the right to protest.  Committed liberals and libertarians will go a step further and quote Voltaire,

“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

How far does this philosophy go?

“Illinois Nazis.  I hate Illinois Nazis”—Elwood Blues

In 1977, the village of Skokie, Illinois, which had a sizeable Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors, refused to allow the National Socialist Party of America (the NSPA) to march through their town waving Swastika flags and wearing uniforms.  It was too provocative and incendiary.

The ACLU objected to this prohibition, on behalf of the NSPA, on first amendment grounds.  And lost.

They appealed to the Illinois appellate court, asking for expedited hearing. They were rejected.

They appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, and were also refused an expedited hearing.

The ACLU appealed to the US Supreme Court… and won, 7-2.  The Illinois Supreme Court was told it had to hear an expedited appeal if first amendment rights were threatened.  The ACLU, and NSPA, won.  Swastikas and nazi marches are protected under the first amendment in the United States.

The lawyer who represented the ACLU, David Goldsberger, is Jewish.

In the end, the NSPA did not march in Skokie: they marched in Chicago, which had already given them a permit.

But there’s an antecedent to this decision, in another western liberal democracy, which perhaps shaped the thinking of the US Courts.

“They shall not pass.” –Plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street in Tower Hamlets.

In October, 1936, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) decided they would march in London.  They would march in London’s East End!  London’s East End with a large Jewish population. London’s East End with a long working class history, and basically a hot bed of labour-organizing and socialism.,

For context: The Reichstag burned in February 1933; the SS took over running the concentration camps in 1934—they were mostly holding communists and social democrats; the night of Long Knives was in July 1934; the Nuremberg laws were passed in September 1935.  In July of 1936, the Spanish Military had launched a coup against the Republican government, and Italy and Germany began supplying guns. Kristallnacht was still two years away in In November 1938.  But… the writing was on the wall, and everyone knew about German Fascism. Especially Communists, Labour Organizers and Jewish people in East End of London

So, in October, 1936, Oswald Mosley leader of the BUF and his Black-Shirted, Jack-Booted Goons would exercise their rights to march through the neighbourhood in four columns, from Tower Hill… it would be a demonstration of British Strength!

Image: Mussolini and Mosley

The Jewish community in the East End pulled together a petition with over 100,000 signatures in two days calling for the march to be banned.  It included the signatures of all five mayors of the Eastern Boroughs.  The Home Secretary denied the request.

So, at 2 pm… somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 fascists arrived at Tower Hill.  Aware there might be trouble with the protest, the London Police dispatched 6-7,000 police, including mounted police, wireless vans, and a spotter plane, so their actions could be coordinated from Scotland Yard, and they could see what was going on.

The low estimate of how many counter-protesters showed up is 100,000… more than 300,000 counter-protesters at the high end. The police and fascists would have been out numbered by orders of magnitude, and the counter-protesters were locals, who controlled the streets and buildings. The BUF and the communists both set up dressing stations to assist the wounded. They were clearly getting ready for a huge fight.

Trolley cars were abandoned by drivers in the wide main streets, making it easier to physically block attempts to march through. Barricades were set up by the counter protesters on narrower local streets to stop the marchers… and when police attempted to take down the barricades, they were met with hand-to-hand fighting and pelted with rubbish and chamber pots.

At 3:30… Oswald arrived.  The Metropolitan Police, fearing things would get worse if the small group of fascists tried to push through, told him to leave, and march and hold his meetings in the West End.  He did.

150 demonstrators were arrested that afternoon: mostly the anti-fascist counter-protesters.  175 people were injured, including police, women and children.

In response, the British government passed the Public Order Act, 1936, which outlawed the wearing of political uniforms, and forced organizers of large meetings and demonstrations to obtain police permission.  The law is still on the books.



How do you feel the rights of protest, and counter-protest, when it comes to freedom of speech should be balanced?

What do you think the different resolutions and decisions of the NSPA vs. Skokie and the Battle of Cable Street, show respectively about context, and respecting freedom to speak, and to assemble?

How do you feel about the right of fascists to parade through Jewish neighbourhoods?

How do you feel about the right to wear political uniforms and symbols at heated and controversial protests?

Sir Tainley

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