Free speech is infringed upon all the time, even here, in the most free-speaking country on earth. There is not only Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous dictum against falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but the practice of muzzling claims like “Eating FattySnax Makes You Younger!”
You cannot — as I learned when shepherding my last book into print — quote a half-dozen lines of “Ol’ Man River” without paying $250 to the estate of Oscar Hammerstein II, nor four lines of “Fallen” without sending $600 to Sarah McLachlan.
If I wanted to conduct a noisy protest, with cowbells and bullhorns, on the public sidewalk outside your home at 3 a.m., I would be hauled away, no matter how noble the cause I was advocating.
So with the U.S. Supreme Court taking out a magnifying glass and considering — with what has to be a maximum of deep visceral disgust — the by-now-sadly-familiar protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, which shows up at military funerals with their neon “God Hates Fags” signs (they also picket synagogues, because God hates Jews too), we must wonder if the First Amendment truly requires we tolerate this.
God hates a lot of people, according to the Westboroites, and while they have a right to channel that hate, it seems an oversimplification to view the choice, as the ACLU does, as: a) abandon free speech or b) accept the most hateful speech imaginable directed at the most innocent parties at their moment of maximum vulnerability.
At some point free speech can become harassment. We would shield kindergartners from sexual predators advertising adult pleasures. If Cindy Lou Preidupon can get a court order barring Biff Kriepimope’s constant phone calls without endangering the general right of smitten swains to make their passion known to their beloved, there must be a way to mold the infinitely mutable laws of this country into a rag to shove down the throats of the Phelps family without keeping striking gravediggers from picket lines.
If not — and maybe it can’t be done; we seem to have entered the Can’t Be Done era of American life — there are lessons to be learned from having the Westboro Baptist Church lurching around the country spewing hatred in all directions.
For instance. You will notice, while there are many counterprotests to the Westboro pickets, the mainstream Baptist church has not made a big show of distancing itself from its Westboro namesake. And why should it, since the Westboro monstrosity is in no way connected with the official Baptist church? It doesn’t represent it.
We all agree — but keep that logic handy for when you’re wondering why your local mosque never has a “We Don’t Support Terror Rally.” They don’t have to either, and only one-size-fits-all bigotry expects it.
The Westboro Baptist Church is the most intense concentration of a poison that we all drink in diluted form. It would be a relief if the Supreme Court decided our society could guiltlessly lift it up with a pair of tongs and place it far out of sight — decent people would appreciate it. But if the court doesn’t, it might be the more demanding, ultimately more rewarding path, to gaze steadily at this evil and gauge whether it truly is as removed from ourselves as we would like it to be.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here