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Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment

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Consider the case of Frank Collin. In 1977, he was the leader of a Nazi group that wanted to conduct a protest march through Skokie, Ill., a Jewish community with a significant population of Holocaust survivors. The group sought a permit to parade through the village in their storm trooper uniforms displaying swastikas.

Village officials objected, and the courts agreed to block it, ruling that such a march would be a blatant provocation, a form of fighting words, unprotected by the First Amendment.

But the US Supreme Court had a different view. It reversed the lower courts and sent the case back. Ultimately, the dispute was decided by a federal appeals court in Chicago that found that free speech rights are broad enough to cover even a group of Nazis wearing swastikas marching through a community of Holocaust survivors.

"If these civil rights are to remain vital for all, they must protect not only those society deems acceptable, but also those whose ideas it quite justifiably rejects and despises," the appeals court said.

David Goldberger remembers the case well. He was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois and was one of Mr. Collin's lawyers.

The case would not have been easy for any lawyer, but it was particularly tough for a Jewish lawyer defending a Nazi pitted against Holocaust survivors. "Some folks threatened to shoot me," he says.

The ACLU lost members and financial support over the controversial case. But Mr. Goldberger, who has since retired after a career as a law professor at Ohio State's Moritz College of Law, says it was a battle well worth fighting.

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