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

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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.''

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?


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