Monday, October 11, 2010

Defending the Poison

Wetback.  Spic.  Foreigner.  Illegal.

I've been called all of those, just because I am Hispanic.

Bigot.  Racist.  Hatemonger.  Intolerant.

Yep.  Been called all of those, too, just because I am a Christian.

I have walked into stores, only to be followed around by store clerks.  I have walked into places and have been told to leave. "We don't like your kind here."  I have felt the heat rise up the back of my neck and my face involutarily redden.  I have sensed the anger boiling inside of me while I have forced myself to walk away, even as my hands ball into fists.

Personally, I don't like those experiences.  But, really, I'm not that special.  We all have our lists of shame.  We have all at one point or another been insulted and offended, some for reasons much more personal and deep than any of mine.

I got to thinking about this as I read the briefs and heard the oral argument on Snyder v. Phelps.  I believe Westboro Baptist Church is immoral, classless, offensive (on more levels than I can count), repulsive, and morally indefensible.  However, I would, without a moment's hesitation, defend their legal right to be unrepentant, ignorant fools.

Walk this through with me for a minute.  Many people want to ban the church's antics because they are offended.  That's not a good enough reason.  We have all offended someone at some point.  Watch me for a moment, and I'm sure I'll find a way to offend someone else.  It's what humanity is made of.  And it's what the First Amendment was enacted to protect.

Asking the courts to come in and protect us from insult can backfire.  It makes no sense to sharpen the sword of governmental power, when you remember that "our" side (whatever that is) will not always be the one holding the sword.

Whack-a-mole is only fun if you're holding the hammer.  And yet sometimes, we are the moles.

We cannot run to the government every time we are offended by some narrow-minded, neanderthal, self-important bigot.  Because, ultimately, we are all that to someone else.

The First Amendment is not a guarantee to protect the thin skinned, milquetoasty, limp-spined among us.  No, we are Americans. As offensive as it may be to us, it is that very exchange of discourse that has made this country great.  Let's defend that.  Even if, in the end, all we are doing is defending someone else's right to spread verbal poison.


Dan said...

I agree that he has 1st amendment rights, but he does not have the right to target a family and harass them. I can say things that are objectionable to many people and have the right to d so, but if I follow them around hollering epithets at them, that is beyond free speech. That is what Phelps does, and I think that is not permissible in our society.

Rick O' Shea said...

I don't think the legality of their actions is much in question. In fact, I think that they have been very careful to remain within the law.
This situation calls for social reprimand, a public "shunning", as it were. The problem is, these folks seem to not have enough sense of shame for this to affect them. This leaves us with extralegal options (beating the living crap out of them), and trying to use the law to enforce common decency.
Hence your argument: common decency, morality, etc.. are relative to individuals and may need to be independent of common law.
I feel that far too many laws (the issue of gay marriage being a prime example) are the result of someone saying, "I don't like that, so I think it should be illegal".
As to the Westboro clan, they are about as despicable as any cluster of anthropoids can get, and the fact that they are operating in the name of a "church" makes them doubly so. Maybe Ozzy can sue them into the ground over their use of "Crazy Train".
Otherwise, well, the Viking blood in me has a solution, but I'm not going to detail it to an officer of the court...

Lawyer said...


I think we have to draw a distinction between speech that is offensive to us (but still protected), and speech or conduct that violates either civil or criminal law. What these people do is insert themselves into national dialogue by taking advantage of different newsworthy events. In this particular instance, there was no allegation that they commited a crime. The only issue before the court is whether their words and actions led to the intentional affliction of emotional distress. I don't think I want public speech measured against such an amorphous standard.

Keep in mind that this can be extended if we're not careful. What if we have a rally by the Brady bunch commemorating those killed by guns? That can be considered a solemn memorial. Now, if you have members of the public, with NRA, GOA, and other pro 2Am groups picketing nearby, should their speech be protected? For those memorializing the victims of gun violence, having those signs would definitely be distressing, upsetting, and offensive.

Me, in order to protect my freedom of speech, I'm willing to endure vitriol from someone else.


I have felt the same way when I have been on the receiving end. And I likewise believe that any attemt to ostracise them will only fuel the fire However, until they break the law, there is greater value in letting them speak (allowing them to hang themselves with their words) than there is in silencing them. The social solution you propose is indeed the best. Those who offend me to not retain the right to keep their secret. I will let others know, and they in turn will spread the word.

The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don't agree with. Eleanor Holmes Norton