I have been in an emotions v. reason struggle this past week since the Westboro Baptist protesters case went to the Supreme Court. When the decision comes down in a few months, it will be a landmark decision pitting free speech against privacy.
Very few of us are not affected by the picture of fundamentalist anti-gay protesters standing near the graveside service of a dead soldier holding signs which say, “The only good soldier is a dead soldier.” There is no place or event more sacrosanct than a graveside service. To most of us the protesters are despicable.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended the right of American Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Despicable. I renewed my ACLU membership.
The ACLU came down on the side of the North American Man-Boy Love Association’s (NAMBLA) Web site on the grounds that “an idea cannot be charged with murder.” Despicable. I renewed my ACLU membership.
In July 2006, the ACLU sued on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church members, whose anti-gay protests were plaguing troop funerals. The reason behind these protests, according to the church’s pastor, is: God is punishing homosexuality by allowing our soldiers to be killed. There is no “reason” involved. Despicable. I renewed my ACLU membership.
It is the despicable that the First Amendment protects. Despicable being defined as what's patently offensive to us. If we think the First Amendment should protect only ideas we embrace, it has no purpose.
My legal hero Clarence Darrow argued that the free speech of every person or group in this country – “no matter how despicable” – must be protected.
In one of my favorite movies, “The American President,” Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd addresses a rival candidate at a press conference:
“For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren't you, Bob? Now this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party's most powerful spokesman and a candidate for president, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? … America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.’”
In his Sept. 8 post, “Koran cook-out,” Infidel753 wrote:
"Make no mistake: the moment we compromise on freedom of expression because the said expression shocks and outrages somebody - especially if it's because the shocked and outraged party is threatening violence - freedom of expression vanishes, and we are under the dominion of the thug and the bully."
We’ve all heard the declaration written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, under the pseudonym of Stephen G Tallentyre in "The Friends of Voltaire" (1906): “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Not much of that going around these days.
Just remember that half the people in this country find what you have to say despicable. Never underestimate the power of right-wing fundamentalists. They managed to give this country the 18th Amendment to its Constitution. And, they are hellbent to shut you up.
Setting aside my emotions and clearing my head, I find that reason falls on the side of free speech. I am certain SCOTUS will continue to protect the First Amendment, and that’s a good thing – it’s called democracy.
“ACLU’s Statement on Defending Free Speech of Unpopular Organizations,” 31 August 2000: LINK
“ACLU Sues for Anti-Gay Group That Pickets at Troops' Burials,” Garance Burke, Associated Press, July 23, 2006. LINK
When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate, Philippa Strum, University Press of Kansas, 2000, 184 pp. (Honorable Mention, American Bar Association’s 2000 Silver Gavel Award recognizing outstanding efforts to foster public understanding of the law) LINK