A painful victory for the first amendment

The Supreme Court recently ruled that protests held by the nutjobs of Fred Phelp's ultra-right-wing Christian fundamentalist church have the right to protest at soldiers' funerals due to the First Amendment. This is a painful victory for free speech, but a victory nonetheless. This is one of those "slippery slope" cases. No one would have a problem if Fred Phelps could legally be stopped somehow. Almost everyone finds the idea of protesting at just about anyone's funeral disgusting. But restricting free speech is a dangerous thing, as it is the most fundamental of rights in the Bill of Rights (that's why it comes first). Tyrannical governments restrict free speech first (no, I'm not Glenn Beck and am not going to argue that the US is about to descend into tyranny). In America, such a government would have to go through the Supreme Court first.

To twist this around a bit, imagine the following scenario: a group of people are viewed by society to be disgusting in their very existence. The thing they are protesting for is also viewed with disgust. Children walking by and reading picket signs might be demoralized. These people have no right to protest and to use our constitution against us.

That group could easily be homosexuals, or maybe communists. We had a "red scare" after all. The Bill of Rights and its nominal defender, the Supreme Court, protect us against mob ("majoritarian") rule. Liberal democracy (sorry to use the L-word, Republicans, but that's what America is) does not mean always following the will of the majority. It means laying unalienable rights and ground rules, protecting minorities, and then following the will of the majority beyond that. Even if everyone in the country is against something, it doesn't matter if that something is protected by the charter that forms the basis for the functioning of our entire society. (See tea partiers? Some of us "liberals" have read the constitution, too!)

Fear not! As always, the right response to people saying disgusting things is to use your own right of free speech to confront them. After all, the First Amendment gives you the right to say what you want (unless you are knowingly spreading defaming lies about others), but the First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of what you say! Fred Phelps might have the right to picket, but we also have the right to be pissed off about it and to let him know that in no uncertain terms. If the whole country stood up to Fred Phelps and his nutso family, I bet they'd eventually cut it out. How about picket lines on public property outside their church every Sunday? How about counter-demonstrations at funerals? Youtube videos of people peacefully expressing their disgust at their actions in person? Let's get together people from different faiths (and none), veterans, patriots, communists, whatever. Let them know that while they have a right to send their message of hate, we are not willing to receive it and, though we have no legal power to enforce it, that we demand that they stop!

Maintaining our rights is a struggle, and defending them is not always easy, especially when you have to defend the rights of Nazis and other crazies. It's worth doing, though, because remember: the First Amendment is a double-edged sword, for both sides of any dispute.


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