(Photo Credit: Michael S. Williamson, Washington Post. WaPo caption: Gen. (Army, Ret.) Bill Branson stands in salute to protest the Westboro picketers during [Army Staff Sgt. James] Ide's funeral. "It is an insult to every American who has died for the freedom of speech," said the father of another dead soldier. "No one in the history of the nation has ever protested like this. Don't tell me that my son died for that.")
Now, before you start thinking that America's favorite dead dog blogger has lost her mind as well as her body, permit me to explain why I'm in the mood to plant a big wet kiss on the desiccated cheek of the meanest thing to whirl through Kansas since a tornado whisked Dorothy and Toto away to Oz.
Look, folks, it's not every day that Chief Justice John Roberts and all four of the associate justices appointed by presidents Clinton and Obama (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) agree on a matter of law. That in itself is cause for contemplation if not celebration. (The lone dissenter in the ruling was Justice Samuel Alito, who seems to be charting his own path on First Amendment law, favoring privacy interests over free speech in a number of recent cases, according to Jeffrey Rosen.)
Further, the decision afforded WaPo and the New York Times a golden opportunity to clear their throats and offer up a robust defense of the right to speech they respectively described as "ugly" and "hurtful." Moose took a similar position in a discussion in Thursday's blogging class, pointing to photos of some of the rev's more odious signs and declaring, "This is what free speech looks like." And, yes, she also used the occasion to talk to her baby bloggers just launching their little First Amendment machines about the great responsibility that goes along with unrestricted freedom. "Just because you can say it," she said, gesturing again toward the photos of the Westboro protesters, "doesn't mean you should say it." Lord, she's cute when she gets all soap-boxy and Miltonic.
The decision in Snyder v. Phelps also performs the useful public service of dispelling the fog of misunderstanding that too often clouds popular discussions of free speech. On the one hand, we see assertions of an After-School Special model of free speech, under which individuals are free to say anything -- as long as it doesn't hurt the feelings or offend the sensibilities of anybody else. Such a view perhaps influenced the decision of the Maryland jury in the Phelps case to award millions of dollars to the grieving family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006 and whose funeral was picketed by the hate mongers of Westboro Baptist. On the other hand, we hear people assert that their right to free speech has been violated should they suffer any kind of consequence for, let's say, using the N-word several times on a nationally syndicated radio call-in show. We might call this the Dr. Laura model of free speech: I get to say whatever toxic lunacy happens to pop into my feeble brain, and anyone who objects or proposes boycotting the sponsors of my show is violating my rights under the First Amendment.
Both views of the First Amendment are, of course, incorrect. Despicable as the words and actions of Phelps and his followers are, Justice Roberts is right that they qualify as speech on matters of public import and were carried out in compliance with local ordinances designed to maintain order. In short, they were protected, no matter how odious they may be to the vast majority of citizens and how painful to the grieving family and friends of the deceased. As for Dr. Laura, as long as the government isn't infringing on her right to spout her idiocies, her decision to leave radio has absolutely nothing to do with getting her "First Amendment rights back," as she claimed last August in an interview with Larry King. It has to do with avoiding criticism and the economic consequences of behaving badly in a very public fashion. Dr. Laura was free to say whatever the heck she wanted to say -- and listeners were free to express their opinions of her speech by boycotting her sponsors. Money talks, after all, and in this country that kind of speech is protected, too.
There is another reason to be grateful to Rev. Phelps and his weird band of publicity-seeking followers. Beyond providing the nation with a useful object lesson in what a, um, full-throated commitment to free speech really means, we should thank the Westboro Baptists for becoming the public face of homophobia in the United States. In being so relentless, so visible, so hateful, and so singularly focused on homosexuality, they have contributed much to making homophobia, at long last, a socially unacceptable prejudice. The group's apocalyptic antipathy toward gays and gayness -- made famous in the ubiquitous slogan (and website) God Hates Fags -- has made it difficult, even for religious conservatives, to be comfortable asserting a casual anti-gay bigotry that used to be de rigueur among theo-cons. Thanks in no small part to Rev. Phelps, I'd be willing to bet that if former Senator Rick Santorum gets back into politics, you won't hear him comparing gay sex to "man on dog" sex. Shoot, I'll even give crazy Fred some credit for President Obama's self-described "evolving" position toward support for same-sex marriage. No one in public life wants to be accused of homophobia these days, no matter how mealy-mouthed their policy positions might be, and that is progress, my friends.
We were pleased to find an ally for our concurrence with the majority in Snyder v. Phelps in someone with her own painful history with the Westboro Baptist Church, Romaine Patterson, the friend of Matthew Shepard, the murdered gay man whose 1998 funeral first brought Phelps to national attention. When Phelps and his followers returned to Laramie, WY the next year to protest at the trials of Shepard's accused murderers, Patterson was ready, having organized a counter-protest in which she and her friends "dressed as angels, silently encircling [the Phelps crew], our huge outstretched wings blocking their vicious signs from view." Such counter-protests now regularly greet Phelps, as the notion seems to have taken hold that an Angel Action is what is called for when the Devil comes to town.
In Sunday's WaPo, Patterson wrote of her sympathies for grieving families who, "in their most vulnerable hour," have been subjected to the "cruel rants" of Westboro members -- and yet she strongly agrees with the court's decision in the Phelps case. Patterson, an out lesbian with a radio show on Sirius XM Radio, argues that the court has to be "blind in its devotion free speech," protecting Fred Phelps so that it might also protect her -- and me, and you. We may not be able to eliminate his speech, but we can and should counter it. Fight bad speech with better speech or a righteous, dignified, grieving, outraged silence. As Patterson puts it:
To me, the lasting legacy of our counter-protest so many years ago is the enduring power of drowning out noise with silence, of smothering hate with peace.Amen, girlfriend. Remember that, darlings, the next the Devil shows up in your neck of the woods. Peace out. Peace always.
(Photo Credit: Via. Romaine Patterson [right] and others counter-protest at the 1999 trial of one of the men convicted of killing Matthew Shepard.)