Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When Free Speech Isn't Free

A couple of days ago was the first Monday in October, the traditional beginning of the new term of the Supreme Court. This court is a bit different from previous terms since there will be three sitting judges who happen to be women - Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. It will be interesting to see how their presence affects the Court and what new viewpoints and fresh ideas they will bring.

It also sounds as if there will be some fascinating cases among the 50 or so already on the docket, with probably two dozen more to come before this term wraps up next February. At least two will deal with the hot-button topics of immigration reform and the death penalty. Our fair state of Arizona figures prominently in two other cases; one involving the use of tax breaks for donations to private scholarships, most of which turn out to be for religious schools (guess which side I am on here). The other is about the legality of our employer-sanction law, which punishes businesses for hiring undocumented workers.

But there are a couple of First Amendment/free speech issues before the Court which may prove to be more than a little sticky. The first involves a California law which seeks to prohibit the sale of violent video games to children. I never play video games so I can't say I have anything to add to the debate. It sounds like another instance of the government trying to step in and take the role the parents should be doing in keeping their little darlings from being exposed to video games with titles like "Extreme Alien Sex Crime Blood Lust III." Exactly where does the role of the government begin in these cases, and what right do they have to limit commercial activity? There are laws which prohibit the sale of pornography to minors; is this similar? This doesn't sound like a big deal, but in most cases like this, it is the precedent that is set which causes the major upheaval.

The other free speech case is much more difficult, it involves the right of members of a batshit-crazy church to protest at military funerals. The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas has made a very ugly name and reputation for itself by protesting at military funerals in the most obnoxious and offensive way possible, holding up garishly-colored signs that say things like "God Hates America" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers". They allege that the deaths of soldiers are a direct result of the "tolerance" the United States shows for homosexuals, among other things. Presumably this "tolerance" includes hate-filled voter initiatives like California's Proposition 8, state amendments to ban gay marriage and many other legal moves to codify anti-gay discrimination into law. With tolerance like that, who needs homophobia?

You need only look at a video of these protesters in action to come to the conclusion that they are completely insane. They are so filled with twisted, perverted hatred and bile it is almost interesting, from an anthropological or psychological point of view, to see such incredible pathology on display. They must lead horrible, wretched lives - consumed with evil, anger and viciousness. They almost make Sarah Palin look like Mother Teresa, they are that bad. I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Americas would agree that no matter what your stand may be on gay rights, men and women who gave their lives in service to their country deserve respect and honor at the very least.

But one of the cornerstones of our society is the concept of free speech; that is, people have a right to express their opinion, no matter how outrageous and loathsome, without fear of sanction. True, the protesters are vile and disgusting and their message is repellent to the extreme, but like it or not, we have to recognize their right to express it. Is there a point where free speech is so outlandish and offensive that it isn't protected by the Bill of Rights? There are some limits on free speech - shouting "Fire" in a crowded movie theater is not protected, and Congress has tried to put limits on flag-burning, but where is the dividing line between offensive and non-offensive speech? Should the toxic antics of these so-called "Christians" be tolerated?

Sadly, the answer is yes. For as much as we hate these people for their lack of respect or anything resembling common decency, we cannot stop them from acting in this way. The Constitution grants us the right to say what we will, as long as it does not directly cause injury to another person, as the movie-theater example above would. The protesters can say what they want to, and even though they make me want to puke every time they appear on television, we as members of a free, democratic society have to just turn away and let them rant and rave. Many organizations such as the ACLU and television and print media associations have come down in favor of the protesters' rights, even though it probably feels like swallowing broken glass.

Such is the conundrum and the cost of "free speech." For speech to be truly free, it must be free for all forms of speech, no matter how disgusting. Someone once said a long time ago, "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Unfortunately, all of us have to do that in this case. But I'm thinking the Bill of Rights and the spirit of this country are strong enough that we can triumph over the horrible, loathsome scumbags that make up the Westboro Baptist Church, and take hope in the belief that there is a special place waiting for all of them in the very lowest depths of hell when they finally die, something that just can't come soon enough.

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