Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Westboro and Speech

I have just read that the Arizona legislature has passed an emergency bill restricting the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket at the funeral of the nine-year-old girl murdered in the Tucson massacre. The bill was passed and sent to the governor for signature in a matter of minutes.

I have read much about this bizarre religious group and its hideous protests at the funerals of soldiers, and have listened to many debates about the free speech implications of their activities. I even watched a documentary film, made by British television, about the sect. I have my own views concerning them and their peculiar beliefs, but whatever I or anyone thinks about them, they raise an important constitutional issue regarding freedom of speech in this country.

Let us be frank: What these religious fanatics do is repulsive, inhuman, disgraceful. But is it constitutionally protected speech? That, as Hamlet would say, is the question. On the one hand, all decent human beings are revolted by the efforts of these people to defile the funerals of honorable Americans, and horrified by their violation of the sanctity and grief of the victims’ families in order to make an abstruse, even absurd, theological point. On the other, their protests are precisely the kind of repugnant speech which the first amendment was written to protect. Now they propose to desecrate the funeral of a nine-year-old girl to make their inane point. This child, this innocent, died as a result of a madman’s raving, translated into horrific action, and the members of the Westboro Church, in their perverted logic, see fit to use her funeral as a platform for parading their odious ideas. That much is clear. But the question remains: Is it protected speech?

On this score, I would invoke the words of Lincoln: The question is a difficult one, and good men do not agree. Some argue that the activities of the Westboro Church are so repugnant to basic human decency that they must be suppressed, at least in their public expressions. Others would say that this kind of hideous speech is, and must be, included in the first amendment protection of all speech no matter how divisive and distasteful it may be. As Voltaire said: I may not agree with what you say, but I will protect to the death your right to say it. If ever there was speech with which we disagree, it is that of the Westboro Baptist Church. And so the question becomes: Are we prepared to defend its members’ right to protest this little girl’s funeral?

The convenient and politically expedient response is No. What the church members propose to do violates everything we understand about the innocence of children and the right of parents to grieve for their loss. The point is so obvious that even lawmakers can grasp it: This must be prevented, at all costs. But what is the cost, ultimately? Is it the abridgment of free speech for the sake of personal grief or of a communal sense of decency? Surely, that is too high a price to pay. Under that standard, the Ku Klux Klan would have been exonerated by its local constituencies for cross burning, on the grounds that local standards of fairness would have been violated otherwise. We embark on abridgment of free speech at our peril. Precedents will always come back to haunt us.

And so, what of the threatened Westboro protest of the little girl’s funeral? It seemed to me, initially at least, that the question should be framed thus: Do we hate what the Westboro Church stands for more than we love freedom of speech? If that is the correct way of phrasing it, then the answer is clear: No. We love freedom of speech more; indeed, we value it above all other freedoms, since all other freedoms flow from it: freedom of the press, of religion, of assembly to redress grievances against the government. In these terms, the answer is equally clear: The Westboro Church must have the right to protest the little girl’s funeral. What is at stake ultimately is not the grief of the family or even common decency, but something much greater and more far-reaching – it is the right of every free man and woman in this country to express views that the majority may feel to be repulsive. Such is the nature of free speech; such was the intent of the Founders, who, themselves, expressed views that were considered treasonous at the time. Indeed, they were views for which they could have been, and expected to be, hanged.

But as I continued to reflect on this thorny question, a subsidiary issue occurred. To my way of thinking, the Westboro Baptist Church members are the victims of systematic and unremitting brainwashing. Only such brainwashing could produce the hatred and despite which they display at their protests of the funerals of soldiers. How else to explain the fervent need which they feel now to protest at the funeral of a little girl murdered by a lunatic as she waited to meet her congresswoman, with whom, as a recently elected member of student council, she must have identified? How could the human psyche become so distorted? How could people comport themselves with such callous disregard for even the aspirations and death of a child? How can people behave in such a bestial manner?

The answer, it seems to me, is that they are not legally sane. Their religious indoctrination has distorted their view of reality to such an extent that they can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. Indeed, so brainwashed have they become that they actually see wrong as being not only right, but sanctimonious. I am reminded of the behavior of the priest-molesters of the Roman Catholic Church, who convince themselves that child rape is a blessed prerogative reserved to themselves alone. And so they indulge their bestial appetites at the expense of the innocence of children, content in the belief, religiously inspired, that what they were doing was not only right, but holy.

To my way of thinking, the Westboro people are no different in this case than the molesting Catholic priests – their view of reality is so distorted by their own neuroses and religious indoctrination that they cannot but behave in a criminal manner. And so the issue becomes, not whether we love freedom of speech more than we hate their actions, but, rather: Is the speech of brainwashed lunatics protected by the Constitution? Put this way – which I believe is the correct way – the answer, emphatically, is No. By virtue of their indoctrination and lunacy, the Westboro Baptist Church members forfeit their right to protection of their speech in protesting the funerals not only of the little murdered girl, but those of fallen servicemen as well.

Is insane speech constitutionally protected? Do lunatic ravings fall under the umbrella of the first amendment? Is that what the Founders intended? Certainly not. Indeed, they would, themselves, have to have been mad to protect such speech. The ravings of self-deluding lunatics is no more a legitimate form of speech than is the right of the Tucson killer to express whatever demented views he held by killing innocent people. Looked at from this point of view, the Westboro Christian Church has no more right to its form of expression than did Jared Lee Loughner to his.