April 26, 2014

933 words 5 mins read

What the ACLU Teaches Us About Cliven Bundy

In 1977, the National Socialist Party (Nazi) applied to march and rally in Skokie, Illinois. Few communities want Nazis marching down their streets, but Skokie held a stronger case against the Nazis than most towns in America. About one person in every six of Skokie’s large Jewish population was a Nazi prison camp survivor.

The debate was clear-cut: American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while their Jewish “targets” claimed the right to live without intimidation. The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech [source].

The Nazis won their case in the US Supreme Court, but the ACLU lost 30,000 members because of its support of the Nazis.

I was in seventh grade at the time. My adolescent, knee-jerk reaction was predictably simplistic. I hated Nazis. I hated the ACLU. Therefore, I supported the people of Skokie and hoped the Supreme Court would rule for the town.

The Bundy Ranch Parallels

The Cliven Bundy story reminded me of the Skokie case. And it offers a cautionary tale for liberty lovers. Cliven Bundy is a cattle rancher in Nevada, north of Las Vegas. Bundy grazes his cattle on state-owned public land. The US Bureau of Land Management claims to manage the land and demands a tribute for the “right” of grazing. Some years ago, Bundy stopped paying this tribute. He justified his action on two grounds. First, the Bureau of Land Management didn’t actually do anything useful. Second, the Bureau of Land Management was using grazing fees to systematically seize land from the state of Nevada.

Bundy’s fight came to a head recently when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s son struck a deal with a Chinese firm to build a solar energy plant on the land Bundy grazed. The deal offered millions in income to the Reid family. To smooth the transfer to China, Reid helped his former chief of staff into a senior position within the Bureau of Land Management (BML). The BML began a roundup of Bundy’s cattle. Bundy refused to back down. Soon, liberty lovers flooded the area to confront the BML and rescue Bundy’s seized cattle.

After a tense standoff, the BML backed down and returned the herd to Bundy. Then Harry Reid started calling names.He described Bundy’s supporters as “domestic terrorists."

The Problem of Personality

Now we learn that Bundy’s views on race are approximately those of Archie Bunker.

Here’s the problem for us liberty lovers. The people who rallied against the BML were not necessary Bundy supporters. They were opponents of unrestricted government activity. The liberty lovers had no particular affinity for Bundy, but they believed Bundy a victim of an abusive, tyrannical, and corrupt federal government.

But many of us who defend liberty often make linguistic mistakes that damage our position in the public eye. Many of us described ourselves as “pro-Bundy” when, in fact, we were merely pro-liberty. By attaching our beliefs to a highly fallible person rather than to an infallible principle, we assumed the character and qualities of the person. So a flaw in Bundy becomes a flaw in the cause, at least to the casual observer.

Most Americans are casual observers, even of their own lives. Cat video on Facebook seem more interesting now than our child’s first steps. When people hear that Cliven Bundy wonders whether “Negroes” were better off slaves, Bundy’s idiocy infects the whole liberty movement like MERS virus in a Riyadh whorehouse (assuming there are such).

Promote the Principle, Not the Person

A few of us in the liberty movement need to learn a lesson from the ACLU. Though the ACLU lost 30,000 members in the Skokie fight, it survived. The ACLU managed to attach itself to the principle of the First Amendment’s rights yet distance itself from the message its client hoped to spread with First Amendment protections. The ACLU lawyers in the Skokie case represented everyone protected by the First Amendment. The Nazis were just a tool.

In the Bundy Ranch case, the Bureau of Land Management threatens to spread corruption and to seize state property. It operates in abject violation of the law. It does so for the financial benefit of a powerful and wealthy member of Congress.

The fight in Nevada is between liberty and tyranny, not Bundy and blacks.

Thirty-seven years after Skokie, I admit that my knee-jerk position was less than perfect. I can say “let the Nazis march if anyone may march.” I won’t say “let them wear their swastikas.” The death camp survivors on one side. The evil on the other. I still can’t go all the way.

The ACLU was right, though, to defend the First Amendment, even if its client was evil incarnate. Right principles like freedom of speech, press, religion, and association apply to angels and demons alike. As Thomas More explains to young Will Roper in my favorite dialogue from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons:


I hope those who rallied against tyranny in Nevada two weeks ago will continue to stand for their principles even though the person at the center of that fight is a seriously flawed old man. And I hope the liberty movement, myself included, remembers the lesson of Skokie by attaching itself to principles instead of people, giving even the devil the benefit of the law.

P.S. Though the Nazis won their case in the Supreme Court, they never held the Skokie march.