DURING THE LAST YEAR a serious rift has developed between the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of its Jewish members and allies. This split results from several instances this year in which the ACLU has defended the First Amendment rights of various American Nazi groups. The most notable case is the organization's defense of the American Nazi Party's right to march, in full Nazi regalia, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie - whose population includes thousands of survivors of Hitler's death camps. The ACLU has petitioned the Illinois State Supreme Court to overturn an injunction against the march.

The ACLU stance has provoked the resignation of at least 2,100 of the organization's 250,000 members, brought about a decline in contributions, and may force cutbacks in the operation of the Illinois state chapter, which is representing the Nazis in court. Concern over the ramifications of the rift has led ACLU officials to hold two meetings and plan others with leaders of some Jewish groups. The purpose of the meetings, according to ACLU Executive Director Ayeh Neier, is to explain clearly the ACLU belief that somebody must defend the free-speech rights of even the most despicable groups and individuals if the rights of all are to be safe.

It isn't only some of its Jewish members who are questioning the ACLU's defense of the First Amendment rights of "certain groups." In Mississippi, 10 members, including seven blacks, of the state chapter's 21-member board resigned last September to protest the organization's defense of the right of the local Ku Klux Klan to stage a rally on public property next to a school that is now being desegregated. Nevertheless, the Mississippi ACLU chapter is pressing ahead with its defense of the Klan's right to free speech, just as its Illinois counterpart is continuing its defense of the Nazis'. We think both chapters are right. Freedom of expression, if it is to have any meaning at all, cannot be made dependent on the intellectual or emotional sympathy of the majority. And it must be extended to the most disagreeable and noisome of groups - and protected. Only a strong First Amendment can function as a strong shield against the suppression of any minority views.