May 2, 2006

Freedom of speech, how far should we allow it to go?

Fred Phelps started his notorious campaign picketing the funeral of Matthew Shephard, a young homosexual who was beaten to death in a hate crime in Wyoming. The slaying, which brought anti-gay hate crime into the national spotlight, became the pulpit from which Phelps was looking for all along. With Shephard's funeral the Westboro Baptist Church started their campaign and with it came a slew of media attention.

Shortly afterwards Phelps created which documents his feelings for the gay community and chronicles his protests. Years went by and people started ignoring his website, so I guess Phelps felt he needed a new way to shock people with his message.

In what he probably felt was a godsend 9/11 came and the church was out on the march again with signs praising the terrorist attack as God's wrath for America taking kindly to anal.

Now that the Iraq war is upon us Phelps has made it his mission to protest the funerals of dead soldiers. Phelps believes that IEDs are a blessing from God and they hit the message home that America is cursed for not killing off homosexuals on a daily basis.

These protest have spurred wild debate and as a result helped launch an organization called the Patriot Guard Riders, who seem to be successful in countering the Westboro Baptist Church's protests by drowning out their screams.

Many states are passing laws now to help the grieving families by limiting protests around funerals. To stay in accordance with the laws Phelps and his mindless congregation will have to picket a set number of feet from the event and some states are even making it so he couldn't protest at all during the memorial service.

The ACLU has now sided with the case of Fred Phelps and is taking action against the state laws arguing they are in violation of the first amendment. The quote below sums up their claim:

"Public opinion overwhelmingly rejects the type of conduct that has been undertaken by Phelps and his followers, and in an election year, the draw to such a popular and uncontroversial topic is clear; however, speech that is cruel, distasteful and upsetting is still protected by the First Amendment, and by leaving the state on precarious legal footing, what this bill is doing is encouraging Phelps to sue, and have the state help fund his operations." - Chuck Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU of Minnesota.
Now the ACLU has never backed away from taking a difficult, but Constitutionally correct case. Take for instance NAMBLA...actually I won't even go there. You get the point.
When I first heard about the state legislation my first reaction was that it's a good thing. People should have the right to mourn peacefully. On further thought I realized no one does have a Constitutional right to mourn, but we do have the right to protest, a right I hold dear.
This puts me in a political quandary. I support free speech when it comes to things that used to be fringe, such as porn, radical politics, etc. Now when confronted with something as repulsive as picketing a funeral I have to ask myself what country do I really want to live in. Do I want true freedom and live with the dangers of it as well as the benefits? Do I really desire limited speech so long as I agree with it? Am I just a fucking hypocrite?
These laws seem harmless in the fact that it creates a seemingly reasonable buffer zone, but they are on public land and should we be more restrictive to protests we don't like?
After much careful thought I have to side with ACLU on this one. Kicking and screaming yes, but speech such as this must be protected, because I will live with the dangers of assholes such as Phelps in order to protect my own expression. Besides we as a nation should not sit idly by and have the state counter all protest we hate. We should learn from the example of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group doing a great job in ensuring the families can mourn their loved ones without fear of encountering a monster like Phelps. If you do encounter speech you don't like, then do something about it rather than bitching to your elected officials. It's your call to ensure groups like the Westboro Baptist Church are drowned out and watching American Idol will not help.
Do you believe despicable speech should be censored?
In related news the below article surprised the hell out of me. It claims Al Gore has been affiliated with the church.
“This nation is poised to trash the first amendment just to stop my preaching. I'm kind of honored.” - Fred Phelps

1 comment:

Mattbear said...

It is a tough question, but I think you're on the right side. I hate Phelps and everything he stands for, but he has a right to be a raging asshole.

Personally, I think there ought to be a protest of Fred Phelps. A 24/7, rotating shift protest. Everywhere he goes. His house. His church (does he have an actual church?). If he goes to Subway, there should be 100 picketers outside decrying the Chicken Parmesan sandwich because Fred Phelps ordered it (that, and it's just a disappointingly bad sandwich). Protest until that asshole and his misguided progeny give up their lunatic ways.

Fight fire with fire, I always say. Just make sure you have more fire.