October 12, 2010

DAVID B. OFFER: Court ruling against Phelps would weaken freedom of speech for all

It’s hard to defend bigots. I won’t try.

Nazis who march through Jewish neighborhoods carrying hateful signs don’t deserve the support of decent people.

Neither do hooded Klansmen who spew their obnoxious slogans or those who seek to make political points by burning the American flag.

You can add the members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., to the list of bigots who spread hate in the misguided belief that they are doing God’s work.

This church, led by pastor Fred Phelps Jr., says that God is killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish the country for tolerating homosexuality. Phelps and his band have an especially malignant way to express their beliefs. They travel around the country picketing at funerals of servicemen and women.

While I cannot — and do not — defend the actions of Phelps and his followers, I think they should win the case that was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

A ruling against Phelps would weaken the rights of all Americans to freedom of speech.

That includes the right to say ugly things that anger decent people.

If the right to free speech protects only words that please most people, it is a weak freedom. Because the First Amendment protects Nazis, Klansmen and bigots such as Phelps, it also protects ordinary people who may say things that others find hateful. The marketplace of ideas has room for even the most obnoxious words.

The nation is best served when dissent — even unpopular dissent — is protected. It would be sad if the court allowed the actions of a tiny group of bigots from Kansas to weaken the rights that have served the country well for more than 200 years.

I last wrote about Phelps and his followers in March of 2006 when I was editor of this newspaper. The church had threatened to come to Maine to protest at the funeral of Sgt. Corey Dan who was killed in Iraq.

“The funeral of a man who gave his life in service to his country is not the proper setting for a demonstration about homosexuality,” the editorial said. “Clearly this church has failed to teach lessons about compassion for the families and friends of these soldiers who must see and hear their protests while trying to cope with loss and grief.

“The best response to these unwelcome visitors is to ignore them and their hateful message.”

Four years later, I still think that was good advice.

Sgt. Dan’s funeral was held at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. For reasons that were never explained, Phelps didn’t come to Maine, but he and his church continued to go to funerals, carrying obnoxious signs declaring “God hates fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and other vile messages.

The case considered by the Supreme Court last week stems from a lawsuit filed by the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder of Westminster, Md, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Cpl. Snyder’s father charged that Phelps and his church violated his privacy and caused intentional emotional distress for him and his family by picketing at Matthew’s funeral and posting hurtful articles on the Internet.

A jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages. A federal appeals court overturned that verdict, declaring that while the conduct by the church was offensive, it was protected by the First Amendment.

One article posted on the church’s website (godhatesfags.com) said Snyder’s parents “raised him for the devil” and that they “taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery, taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”

The Supreme Court now must weigh the First Amendment issues against Snyder’s claims. It is easy to understand why good people hope that the Supreme Court rules against the church. I share their disgust.

Unfortunately, such a ruling against Phelps could affect people who want to express their opinions on any issue. If this church cannot present its views, no matter how obnoxious, other debate also can be silenced. A ruling against the church could affect people who want to talk for or against abortion, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, capital punishment, gun control, gay rights, casinos, or any other issue that leads people to make signs and march.

That would cause more harm to the country than all of the messages spewed by Phelps and his followers.

This so-called church is nothing more than a small group of bigots, which, like others on the lunatic fringe, eventually will disappear and be forgotten.

It would be sad if its one lasting legacy was to weaken the rights of all Americans to freedom of speech.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. E-mail davidboffer@hotmail.com.  

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