What price freedom of speech?

The constitution of the United States is a fine document which enshrines many of the basic principles of civilisation and arguably one of the most democratic political systems in the history of the world. But the rest of the world looks on aghast as the same document guarantees freedom to US citizens to behave in ways which in any other country of the world would be considered destructive, harmful, stupid, and in any civilised part of the world illegal.

One of the ways that the US Constitution enshrines destructiveness is the second amendment which guarantees “the right to keep and bear arms”. This interpreted by many US citizens, and by most justices of the US Supreme Court, to mean that the government does not have the right to restrict when, where or how citizens may go about armed with lethal weapons. As everyone in the world knows, the cost of this is that the USA is one of the most violent countries the world has ever know, with close to the highest rates of murder, violent crimes, and imprisonment. Several times each year a gunman goes on a rampage somewhere in the USA, often in a shopping mall, school or university campus. Many innocents are killed. The death toll rises, and it is a source of utter bewilderment that the majority of US citizens seem to think this is a price worth paying for their second amendment ‘right to bear arms’. In fact, support of the ‘right’ of gun ownership is seen as a good thing in many (most?) parts of the USA. The political advertisement below is a parody – but how close is it to the truth?.

I may blog about disarmament on another occasion, but in this post my concern is more for the first amendment – the right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. These rights too are dear to the hearts of many US citizens (and people in other countries), but like the second amendment the costs of the US version are high. The world looks on in puzzled amazement at the way these laws are administered, and the price that the US is prepared to pay.

The quintessential embodiment of all that is wrong with the second amendment is to be found in the small congregation at Westboro Baptist Church. This ‘church’, whose members are mostly drawn from the extended and interrelated families of the founder Fred Phelps and his close associates, devotes themselves to preaching the message that God hates all homosexual people, and God hates the USA. The website of this ‘church’ is to be found at www.godhatesfags.com, which gives the reader some indication of what these people are on about. Members of the church meet to protest and to promote their views in public, shouting slogans and waving placards as well as handing out scripture tracts, preaching and praying. They do not do this at political rallies, and rarely outside government offices or other ‘political’ targets. Their practice is to picket the funerals of US soldiers who have died in the service of their country, particularly those who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also picket prominent gay or gay-friendly entertainers, and increasingly they are targeting Jewish gatherings, synagogues and schools.

The Westboro Baptist Church members believe that God hates homosexual people, and that God hates the USA because in recent years the US government has moved towards greater acceptance and equal (or perhaps it would be more truthful to say ‘less unequal’) rights for gay people in the military and in the way government administration deals with couples and families. This extends to all politicians who do not actively oppose such policies, all members of the US militiary, corporations which work with the government in military, medical or just about any other capacity, and everyone involved with the entertainment industry and the internet. And all Jews, everywhere, but especially in the USA or in Israel. And Lady Gaga as well. That’s a lot of people to hate.

The US constitution, as it has ben interpreted since the beginning of the twentieth century, assures the members of the Westboro Baptist Church of their rights to practice their religion of hatred, and to bring their hateful attitude to confront grieving families, to target the vulnerable, and to spit literally and figuratively upon the American flag and the religious faith of millions. This is the price that most US citizens, and members of the Supreme Court, are willing to pay for their first amendment.

There are two encouraging signs which have come to my attention recently concerning the Westboro Baptist Church. The first is that some people with very thick skins and a healthy sense of humour have started to counter-picket. Waving signs with slogans like “I have a sign” and “God hates unicorns”, the tactic is to bring ridicule and scorn on the Westboro Baptist Church picketers. I think this is very clever, and also highly amusing. Grieving families who have these horrible people picketing outside the funerals of their slain children could not be expected to find any humour in the situation, but from a wider perspective laughter probably is the best medicine to cure the despicable evil which the Westboro Baptist Church bring wherever they go.

The other encouraging sign is that one of these grieving parents, Albert Snyder of York Pa. has taken the legal fight up to the Westboro Baptist Church. He has sued the church for millions of dollars in damages after the church picketed the funeral of his son, Lance Corporal matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. The case has been through various lower courts, with partial victories on both sides, but will soon end up in the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting for us to observe whether the honourable Justices of that court believe that the behaviour of the Westboro Baptist Church is protected by the constitution – that it is the price which they and their country are willing to pay.

What seems to be lacking in the understanding of many citizens of the USA is that rights come with responsibilities. Individually and collectively, the right to bear arms and the right to freedom of speech can both be toxic when they are exercised irresponsibly. People who claim those rights and then use them to deliberately inflict harm on others ashould be prevented from doing so by legal means. In most countries of the world they are. There is a right to freedom of speech, but there are also prohibitions against forms of speech which incite hatred. The USA could do better in this. Much better.

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One Response to What price freedom of speech?

  1. Pingback: Wikileaks | Adventures in Education

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