Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Today - And Today Only - I Root For Fred Phelps

The gay-bashing folks of Westboro Baptist Church had their day in the Supreme Court today, contesting a lawsuit that would force them to pay millions of dollars in damages for demonstrating near a military funeral.

The church's actions are distasteful in the extreme. But it's important to note that a number of news organizations -- including the New York Times -- have weighed in on the side of the church. Limiting Fred Phelps' ugly free speech, you see, might have real consequences for the speech the rest of us express and hear.

Respondents were found liable for millions of dollars in damages for intrusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress based solely on their publication of offensive religious and political opinions -- opinions which the Petitioner encountered not at his son's funeral, but only several hours later by watching news reports, and then weeks later after conducting an online search. Imposing tort liability for such speech will chill the activities of all who speak or publish on controversial issues.

In other words, the family didn't actually encounter the Phelpses at the funeral. But they knew the Phelpses were out there, somewhere near -- 1,000 feet away, in compliance with funeral picketing laws -- being offensive. In fact, the family is claiming to have been intruded upon because they found offensive material by searching for it on Westboro's web site. With all due respect to the family, that's a really lousy foundation to start restricting free speech rights: It doesn't really punish the Phelpses for intruding on their privacy, but for expressing repugnant opinions. That's not how it is supposed to work in America.

Either you believe in the First Amendment, in other words, or you don't. Read the whole brief, and you'll get a sense of how silencing Fred Phelps might be a step down the slippery slope to silencing all of us.

No comments: