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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Even odious speech is protected

Last week the Supreme Court rendered what was a rare 8-1 ruling on a controversial case.
Most of us are aware of who and what the Westboro Baptist Church is. These are the people who protest at military funerals, claiming war deaths are God's punishment for the United States' tolerance of homosexuality.
Holding signs saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" or "You're going to Hell," or things far worse, these people disrupt what should be solemn occasions.
To say I find Fred Phelps and his clan odious would be an understatement. However I find myself in agreement with the court that — however offensive — this is protected speech under the First Amendment.
There are many forms of speech which the average person finds offensive, from pornography to racial slurs to half the shows on prime time Television.
In a free society we have little choice but to put up with these things — frustrating as that is sometimes. I once read a document called the Bill of No Rights, a list of 10 rights you do not have.
Article II reads: "You do not have the right to never be offended. This country is based on freedom, and that means freedom for everyone — not just you! You may leave the room, turn the channel, express a different opinion, etc., but the world is full of idiots, and probably always will be."
That the Phelps clan and their "church" are idiots is self evident. That they have the right to be idiots and spout their nonsense should also be.
I certainly understand Justice Samuel Alito, writing the lone dissent from the ruling's feelings on the matter. He noted the free speech provision of the First Amendment “is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. Respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered."
Chief Justice John Roberts was correct, however, in the majority opinion when he wrote: "As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
All of that is true, as painful as it may be. There are, of course, other solutions to dealing with Phelps and his ilk. They are cowards who tend not to show up when they know the Freedom Riders, a group of bikers who go to military funerals and ring them to prevent mourners from being disturbed, are going to be there. And as Dennis Miller noted last week on his radio program, a supreme court decision doesn't protect you from a broken nose. I doubt there's a jury in the world who would convict a mourning father on that one.
In the end, I don't think there was a justice on the court who liked having to rule in Phelps favor, but the law is the law. Every time we dilute the First Amendment we make it easier to decide to restrict expression further and further. That way lies Canada and criminal penalties for "hate speech," which seems to mean any sort of speech the government doesn't like.
I would rather have to put up with 100 Fred Phelps' than find myself in prison because some twit on the government payroll decided he didn't like what I have to say.
The essence of freedom is the freedom to express yourself, no matter how offensive that may be to someone else. If we start taking that away, then the rest of the Bill of Rights folds like a house of cards.
All IHMO, of course.

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