Look over there – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a bigot!
The Supreme Court recently ruled 8-1 in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment protects funeral picketing, in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small religious group from Kansas of about 100 members that have gained national media attention due to their practice of picketing the funerals of American soldiers.
Some have criticized the ruling, stating that the protests caused real harm to the families, and that their speech is offensive. However, the protection of free speech does cover this hate-fueled rhetoric.
Flag burners are protected by free speech even if others disagree with them, because to erode their right to express their views sets a dangerous precedent, that these rights can be eroded in the future if people disagree with another message. If a newspaper ran a story that offended people, could they be shut down? Of course not.
Saying that they are protected by free speech does not suggest that anyone agrees with them, and that was never the question before the court, but rather that free speech is a fundamental value in our society. On a more emotional level, most of us would love to be able to silence them, but we cannot abandon the principles of our democracy.
Even for individuals who are perhaps only useful in showing that there are things both sides of the political spectrum can agree on – they have been soundly criticized by both the left and the right.
If they had escalated into any threats of violence, they could have been taken in for it under the law. There’s a difference between saying something offensive and suggesting that you are going to cause someone harm.
In this instance, though their “Thank God for dead soldiers” posters make the average American angry or upset, they have not threatened to shoot anyone or start any fires to make their point. They had a legal right to protest in a public area.
Indeed, it seems like their point is being made well enough already, with all of this national attention we’re lavishing upon them. The same thing that seems to be pulling the American eye to Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen’s respective downward spirals has drawn our attention to this tiny group that now has a voice in the national discourse disproportionate to its actual size and natural scope of influence.
We’re passing the car crash on the highway but we can’t stop craning our necks and slowing down to look at it, until there’s a whole traffic jam behind us.
The New York Times reported that “Chief Justice Roberts suggested that a proper response to hurtful protests is general laws creating buffer zones around funerals and the like, rather than empowering juries to punish unpopular speech. Maryland, where the protest took place, now has such a law, as do, the chief justice said, 43 other states and the federal government.”
Here, their access to funerals is limited without attacking their free speech, avoiding the dangers of a precedent that free speech can be limited when it offends. States can impose reasonable restrictions on protests of this nature, and they should do so to protect these families.
Even though most have made it clear that they vehemently disagree with their practice of picketing funerals, we’re still providing the platform for them to spew from by pointing all of those cameras. Telling them that no one agrees with them is not going to stop them, not as long as we keep feeding the beast.
It seems that our collective energies would be better spent supporting the families suffering through the tragedy of losing children and the stress of encountering this crass rhetoric. Having empathy for the victims will do more good than giving this fringe element more attention than is warranted.
They don’t need a national media circus, they just need legal protections of a more begin nature. The offensive aggressors in this situation are the only one the attention is benefiting.
Craning our necks at the car crash isn’t helping anyone.