Cruelty tests our faith in freedom
Like any number of citizens, I despise the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church.
This is the small, vicious sect from Topeka, Kan., that goes to military funerals waving signs saying "America is Doomed" and hurling hateful names at people they disagree with.
I hate the way they disrespect men and women who fight and die to defend the very freedoms they are hiding behind. In their cruelty, they hurt parents and relatives who are grieving a loss, and in describing themselves as a "church," they cast a stain on the message of millions of people of faith in this country and around the world.
On a psychological level, they are terrorists.
What's just as bad as the reasons mentioned above is the fact that they endanger our protection of freedom of speech and the First Amendment by pushing people beyond the limits of what they can reasonably be expected to endure in the name of freedom.
Unfortunately, tolerating this kind speech is part of the price we pay to preserve our way of life.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled as much Wednesday, according to The New York Times.
"Speech is powerful," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is quoted as writing. "It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain."
However, under the First Amendment, citizens cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker, Roberts said.
While it had to be a very tough decision, and one that is not going to win popularity contests politically, the Supreme Court made the right call.
They are charged with upholding the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
This brief statement protects our rights to communicate our ideas, to fight against bad policies proposed by our leaders, to remain informed on what our leaders are up to and to worship as we choose. It's important.
When people come out onto the street and say hateful things, it is a normal human reaction to question it. "Surely, this takes matters too far!" one might say. "There has to be a limit!"
We've recently had debate in this country about whether over-the-top political rhetoric will prompt lunatics toward violence.
The cliché yet apt image of the slippery slope becomes clear not when you are looking at the horrible things that are testing your faith in the First Amendment, but when you ask, "How then do we legislate it? Who decides what goes too far?"
The Westboro protesters stand at a distance and wave signs. If we give the government the power to limit what people can write on signs or where they can stand in the public square, what will happen the next time a group of people decides to protest a war, a draft, a plan by the government to eliminate collective bargaining rights?
Any law limiting free speech and the right to protest could be used by the government and lawyers for diabolical purposes down the road.
Roberts argued the church was speaking to matters of public concern. He said the messages "may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import."
If we legislate that people can't say things that others find offensive, the slide down that slippery slope quickly becomes an avalanche. Many people are legitimately sensitive to hateful words cast their way, but others could use this as a political tool to silence opposition to their proposed policies.
I find much of what comedian Bill Maher has to say personally offensive, but I would fight for his right to speak. On the flip side of the coin, many find Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin offensive (most of what I've heard from both, I got through the filter of Jon Stewart or Tina Fey, so I'll reserve judgment). For some reason I find "Family Guy" hilarious, but think the South Park guys are jerks.
I sometimes wonder how long we will be able to hang on to our rights to freedom of speech in an information age where everyone with a modem is testing our good will.
On the other hand, it may be that we could pass as many laws as we like and never find a way to control what people say.
Perhaps we need look no further than the powder keg of protests and revolution surging across the Middle East for a lesson on freedom of speech. Even in the most repressive of regimes, people armed with a little knowledge and a will to speak out cannot be stifled forever.
When you control what people say, you're really trying to control how they think.
And the cruel members of the Westboro "church" have already found that freedom of speech is a double-edged sword.
We may not be able to shut them up, but we can certainly say what we like in response.