As an ardent champion of free speech, I should be thrilled about today's U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Yet, I'm feeling sad and deflated.
The court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects the Westboro Baptist Church, which protested at the funeral of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq with offensive picket signs (Thank God for Dead Soldiers, God Hates You) and a blistering online attack on the church's website against his parents. The soldier's father had sued the church for intentionally inflicting emotional distress and was initially awarded $5 million in damages; but that verdict was thrown out and upheld by the high court.
See, that's the really crappy thing about the First Amendment ...
If you say you are a proponent of constitutionally protected free speech, then sometimes you have to tolerate despicable people like Fred Phelps and his church saying horrible, hurtful things at really inappropriate times. There's just no other way around it.
In this case, the court ruled in the church's favor because it argued that even though the protests occurred at an individual's funeral, they were aimed at the government (against the war) and not private citizens. Here's Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote for the court, explaining how far the First Amendment goes in protecting offensive speech:
As a nation we have chosen ... to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate ... That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
And, I agree with him.
That's not to say I condone the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church -- absolutely not. They were distasteful and disrespectful a million times over. But our anger should be focused solely on the church's hurtful message -- and not its right to publicize that message.
Because any attempt to silence a group protesting the government -- no matter how hateful and harassing they are -- is an attempt to erode our right to free speech as a whole. We may not like it, but we have to accept it, especially if we call ourselves proponents of free speech.
Do you think the First Amendment should protect offensive speech?
Image via k763/Flickr