Sadly, with this whole free speech thing, sometimes this is what it looks like when your side wins:
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a grieving father’s pain over mocking protests at his Marine son’s funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech. All but one justice sided with a fundamentalist church that has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. The 8-1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was the latest in a line of court rulings that, as Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Yeah… fuck. Possibly the worst scum of the earth, Fred Phelps, has been granted a landslide license from the Supreme Court of the United States to picket military and private funerals, spreading his ludicrous doctrine. In the name of free speech, he’s allowed to cause widespread suffering to grieving families who have done nothing to deserve such hateful condemnation from a group of people they’ve never met.
I’ve never been less happy to win.
Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps and director of Centre For Inquiry’s Calgary branch is, understandably, opposed to this ruling:
It has been my contention all along that protesting at a funeral is unconscionable. For the Court to give greater consideration to Free Speech, at the expense of a citizen’s right to bury a loved one in peace, is a dangerous travesty of justice… If ever there was a just reason to limit the time and place that a person can exercise their First Amendment right to free speech, this would be it.
I admire Nate a great deal, and his journey away from his family cannot have been an easy one. Forever being known as the son of that crazy hate preacher must be incredibly tiresome. It is therefore with some trepidation that I must disagree with him in principle. First of all, there is no law in the national constitution or any state constitution that grants an explicit right to bury a loved one in peace. To be sure, privacy isn’t a guaranteed or delineated right in the US Constitution either, so there is an argument that can be made over explicit and implicit rights. However, an implicit right cannot trump an explicit one, and the right of free speech is an explicit one. While it is certainly not a good thing to picket funerals, the rule of law dictates that we must prioritize rights that are codified over those that we wish were codified.
Secondly, there are far better reasons to curtail the right of free expression. From the government’s perspective, vibrant and wholesale protestation of the actions of government officials is dangerous. It could in fact be dangerous to the safety of citizens to have certain ideas made public or encouraged openly. Curtailing that kind of free speech would be far more justified than telling a tiny group of zealots that they’re not allowed to wave ugly signs at a funeral. However, the government is specifically enjoined from banning such demonstrations of lawful speech, and so by the literal interpretation of the law, the WBC slides in.
That being said, since the United States government is more than happy to curtail even legitimate free speech, it seems incredibly hypocritical of them to give the WBC a pass. Apparently it doesn’t violate the constitution to lock political protesters into fenced-off areas, but when those protesters are only harassing innocent civilians, it’s an 8-1 matter for the SCOTUS? Not to mention that since the content of the protests are personal in nature, a legitimate argument could be made that these protests are tantamount to criminal harassment, which is against the law. Not to mention the fact that even if they are not harassment, they are certainly disturbing the peace (another crime). It seems as though these protests can be moved on other legal grounds.
But of course, it is definitely too much to expect consistency from the United States. Free speech is a fundamental right! Well, unless it’s speech we don’t like:
The US army has filed 22 new charges against the soldier accused of leaking thousands of classified documents published by the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. Bradley Manning is facing life in prison if found guilty to the charges which include aiding the enemy. Manning, 23, had previously faced a host of charges including downloading and transmitting to an unauthorised person a classified video of a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters employees.
I am well aware that Private Manning has broken military law and is subject to prosecution as a result. However, his ongoing imprisonment and his treatment as a hostile combatant is both cruel and unusual (there’s that pesky constitution again!). Considering that “the enemy” hasn’t been defined, and that Private Manning didn’t release the information to any specific foreign government or terrorist group, the charge of “aiding the enemy” is as ridiculous as it is transparently a ploy to torture someone who caught the US government with its pants down.
While politics, particularly (it seems) in the United States, is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, this kind of double-speak is particularly egregious. Free speech is important to uphold for hate groups who persecute grieving families, but speak against the government and your rights under the constitution are shredded. Land of the free and home of the brave indeed…
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