March 4, 2011

The Excruciatingly High Price of Free Speech


Sometimes, the price of being an adult is understanding that the right answer isn't always the one you want to hear.

And so it was the other day, when the
Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, that the disgusting freaks associated with the Westboro Baptist Church have a right to picket military funerals.

Understand: in a perfect world, we'd love to see these miserable, wretched excuses for humanity locked away forever, or worse. Words fail us, frankly, when it comes to uttering our absolute revulsion for what these people do. And, the Christian part of us just hopes that the hottest place in hell will be waiting for them someday.

But that doesn't mean the Supreme Court was wrong to rule in their favor.

Most readers of this blog are fairly bright, and no doubt remember learning about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous treatise on where it becomes permissible to regulate speech: that the First Amendment didn't protect someone guilty of "
falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater." Indeed, doing so would represent a threat to public safety.

The problem is, no matter how grotesque the actions of the Westboro nuts, it's hard to demonstrate a threat to public safety. Heartbreaking, yes. But under the best-known precedent for regulating speech, this just doesn't reach Holmes' very easy-to-understand threshold. One would have to conclude that the hatemongers' words, no matter how vile, still amount to Constitutionally-protected free speech.

Jumping forward to this century, an even more relevant precedent must be considered:

In 1999, a federal judge named David Coar used a statute called RICO (the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to essentially silence pro-life demonstrators nationwide. He did this after that particular course of action was strongly encouraged by the Clinton Justice Department. Under Coar's reasoning, anti-abortion demonstrators handing out leaflets or holding up pictures of aborted fetuses outside abortion clinics were really scary, and no different than the mafia, or the former leadership of Local 91, showing up at a construction site.

In February of 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, also 8-1, that Coar had overstepped his bounds. The outcome of the case,
Scheidler v. NOW, was a major triumph not just for pro-lifers, but for the First Amendment. We are fairly certain that a significant portion of this blog's readership would agree that pro-lifers have a right to demonstrate on a public sidewalk.

We believe the same principle applies with the Westboro flakes—and we would hope that those of our readers who were incensed by the attempt to apply RICO to the pro-lifers would share our view in this matter. Were the Supreme Court to rule against Westboro, and allow their speech to be abridged, they would be establishing a dangerous precedent. And rest assured, it wouldn't be long before the Westboro decision was cited to silence pro-lifers, Tea Partiers,
anti-affirmative action bake-salers, Mormon missionaries, and virtually anyone else whose speech offended another.

And that's an America we don't want to live in.

So yes, hate the Westboro nuts. If they show up in your town, applaud the motorcyclists who regularly show up to drown out their chants. But don't strip them of their Constitutional rights, unless you want to weaken your own.

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