Friday, April 30, 2010

What does “Freedom of Speech” mean to you?

Note: This was written just before I went to China - it's ironic that my access to my own blog is blocked there, so I couldn't post this until I arrived home!!

In the wake of Westboro Baptist Church’s decisions to protest at military funerals because of their vitriolic hatred of homosexuals, there has been a suggestion that an amendment be passed to make it illegal to protest at military funerals.

In this case, we have a clash between competing elements of the so-called conservative agenda, which opposes any support for homosexuality, but also claims to be supportive of American warfighters.

Although I personally find the protests at military funerals to be despicable in the extreme, we must remember that the Constitutional guarantee of the right to free speech is not limited to causes with which we agree. Historically, this right has been extended to those advocating a host of minority causes, including Nazis, Communists, and even (dare I say it?) fundamentalist Islamists. Whenever such extremist groups come to power, they immediately abrogate the right to free speech as part of their program of staying in power – just as the Nazis did in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Communists in China, the Islamists of Iran, and so on.

Nevertheless, the right to free speech is extended in the USA even to those who would deny that free speech to others if they were to come to power in the USA. Even to those who say and do things that are repugnant to most Americans, including such acts as burning the American flag. Why would the founders of the United States of American deem it necessary to allow such things? Because they understood that the most fundamental characteristic of a democracy is not the rule of the majority, but the protection of the rights of all minorities. So long as what one says or does is not in direct violation of any constitutionally-approved law, you are free to say or do it to your heart’s content. Even if your program involves advocacy of things too terrible for a decent human being to embrace.

If you have any confidence in the principles embodied within the Bill of Rights, then you’re duty bound to accept as protected even the vile actions of the Westboro "Baptist Church". Such activities are indeed unworthy of protection in the eyes of most Americans, but they’re protected nonetheless. Our democratic system survives only because most Americans understand the need for free speech protection, even when they disagree strongly with the free expressions by someone else. Minority opinions are the most important litmus test for the freedoms we claim to support. Once we sanction the suppression of minority ideas that the majority agrees are repulsive, we’ve taken the first step down the road leading toward losing our freedom!


Anonymous said...
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Chuck Doswell said...

O.K. - so what "freedom of speech" means to you is that if it violates your notion of what is "sacred", it shouldn't be allowed. Thanks for the clarification, but we're just going to have to disagree over this one.

Anonymous said...
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Chuck Doswell said...

Perhaps you need your own blog, Matt. Brevity counts here. Your comment basically re-iterates everything you said before. And my response remains the same - I disagree.

Your porn star example is irrelevant. Being gangbanged in public is illegal. It has nothing to do with freedome of speech.

If WBC is on public property when they picket and carry on in their absurd way, then they have that right. On private property, they would be trespassing, which is illegal. Again, nothing to do with free speech.

Context is irrelevant to freedom of speech.

Chuck Doswell said...

Well ... let me back off a little. Context is relevant - no one has the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, for example. I have the right to say any words I want to say in public, so long as my words don't cause anyone harm. Being offended by my words is your choice, not mine, and you can't argue that I should be muzzled so as not to offend you. The point of the free speech amendment is specifically to allow me to say things that might offend people (if they choose to be offended).

Chad said...


You said: "However, IF the Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to show up uninvited at funerals to "picket" a country that supports homosexuality, then I think it is only fair that homosexuals should be allowed to show up uninvited and perform public displays of affection (or even sexuality) as a "picket" against the Westboro Baptist Church's regular services. If you're going to have full freedom of expression, you've got to allow it for BOTH sides of the argument."

Actually, that has happened, both in the form of counter-demonstrations and in the form of pickets outside of the WBC. A quick read of the Wikipedia page Chuck linked to discusses this.

Freedom of speech is a right that anyone has in this country -- it does not "choose sides" when overseen properly.

f2tornado said...

We may not want to see/hear dissenting opinions but we NEED to. It is only through the free exchange of ideas, no matter how bizarre, we can advance debate for greater knowledge. Even when nothing is learned we at the very least reiterate our beliefs or "truths" when we disagree with an alternative viewpoint. How can you be in the "right" when there is no "wrong"? Galileo was persecuted for what amounted to religious hate speech. His heliocentric view was unpopular yet proved to be correct. Some 400 years late, the Catholic Church recognized Galileo's achievements. It's tough getting your paradigm challenged. -Justin Turcotte

Steve said...

Nowhere in the Bill of Rights will you find the "right to not be offended."

Brian Guppy said...

I certainly agree with your support of the Westboro Baptist Church's right to express its noxious viewpoints, but I question whether it is necessary to allow them to protest AT a funeral.

I think it's reasonable to have laws (I don't know whether they exist) that protect funeral mourners from harassment whether they are on public or private property, and whether the harassers are hate-spewing bigots or just kids throwing rocks.

You don't need to be physically present at an event in order to protest it - during Vietnam many people were able to protest the war without having to go to Saigon or even Washington.

Chuck Doswell said...

Is it necessary to voice their opinion at a funeral? No. But their right to free speech isn't limited to what is strictly necessary. Any law that prevented them from the exercise of their free speech (without violating an existing law, such as trespassing) would be a violation of their constitutionally-guaranteed right.

Brian Guppy said...

"(without violating an existing law, such as trespassing)"

I'm suggesting that if there isn't an existing law that protects funeral mourners from interference and harassment, there should be one. The Westboro Church's actions would almost certainly be in violation of any such law.

We already have other special legal protections for funeral mourners (in most states, for example, cars in a funeral procession are allowed to run red lights in order to keep the procession together if the light was green when the lead car went through). I don't think what I'm asking is too much of a stretch.

Westboro can protest somewhere else, or even at the cemetery 10 minutes after the last mourner leaves, but let people bury their dead in peace and with dignity. I don't think that's violating anyone's freedom of speech.

Chuck Doswell said...

I don't like the WBC crowd and what they're doing, either ... but ... such a law could and should be challenged on the basis of violation of their right to free speech.

Just because we find it incredibly offensive to do what they do is no reason to restrict their right to do it. The Bill of Rights isn't just applicable to people and deeds we like. If we start restricting the right to do things we decide we find offensive, that's a big step down the proverbial slippery slope.

Brian Guppy said...

I'll persist because I'm not sure I'm getting my point across successfully.

The law I'm proposing would be a blanket ban on any sort of harassment or disturbance at a funeral. I would expect and demand that it be applied across the board. It wouldn't be aimed at any specific points of view, or even at protests in general.

Westboro protesters at military funerals, Jewish protesters at Nazi funerals, and guys parked 20 yards away with their car stereo cranked up to 11 would all be in violation of the law. I'd be in favor of such a law even if funeral protests never happened.

The slippery slope argument is always easy to bring up, but what I propose is akin to a city noise ordinance - Westboro can't march up and down the street screaming at 3AM either, and that has nothing to do with their point of view. I'm having a hard time envisioning how what I propose would precipitate a slide into totalitarianism. (I mean other than the one that's already occurring).

I don't think anyone should have to suffer the insult of being harassed and intimidated at a loved one's funeral, and I think this is a way to accomplish that without imposing any even remotely burdensome restriction on anyone's freedom of speech.

In any case, I certainly agree in general with your main point that the offensiveness of Westboro's point of view should never be used as a reason to silence them.

Chuck Doswell said...

Update: 2 March 2011
The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of WBC - they have the right to do what they're doing. No matter how much we hold them in contempt for their despicable protests, the freedom of speech is a most important right to protect. Although I despise WBC and everything they seem to stand for, this was the right ruling.