Thursday, March 3, 2011

The nation’s high court offers up a “Shut Up!” to those who scream “Shut Up!”

Perhaps it is only appropriate that the Rev. Fred Phelps is becoming the 21st Century symbol of just how far our nation is willing to go to ensure the right of people to express themselves, no matter what they believe.

For the Supreme Court of the United States, in ruling Wednesday that Phelps’ Kansas-based church has a right to picket military funerals and make the mourners feel uncomfortable, reinforced what may well be one of the primary points upon which our society is based – we all have a right to be wrong.

IT ALSO IS historically appropriate for a significant “free speech” case to involve someone who is reprehensible to the bulk of our society.

Take Near v. Minnesota, a case that ultimately implemented much of the approach we take today toward restricting the idea of government officials being able to inhibit the “press” in terms of what they publish.

That was a case where Col. Robert McCormick, the long-time boss of the Chicago Tribune, was a prominent backer. Standing up for the rights of journalists everywhere to write what they believed to be truthful!

Except that the publishers upon whom the case originated were writing screeds about Jewish “conspiracies” to overtake our society. Some of their material was borderline fascist.

THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS in Minnesota who tried passing laws to restrict such radical publications (“radical” is NOT synonymous with “liberal” or “progressive,” no matter how much some conservative ideologues of today want to believe so) were using well-intentioned rhetoric similar to the political people of today who have pushed for laws restricting the ability of people to picket outside of funerals and cemeteries.

PHELPS: "Man" of the honor?
Which is what led Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts to write that freedom of expression requires protection of, “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

I can appreciate the theory, and the long-range benefit of this ruling – even though a part of me wonders if this 8-1 ruling (only Justice Samuel Alito dissented) is offering up protection for rhetoric that leans way to the right, while leaving room for the demonization of anything leaning way to the left.

Because I am repulsed at the very thought of anything that the Rev. Phelps could claim as a victory of any type, particularly since the rhetoric he spews sounds way too much like the trash-talk we get from those who take a radical view of Islam to claim a superiority over western society.

FOR THOSE WHO have managed to blank out their minds of the reverend’s activities (I only wish I could do the same), the reverend is the one who leads a batch of crackpots across the country to show up at the funerals of military personnel who were killed in our nation’s conflicts in the Middle East.

He’s not interested in paying tribute to those soldiers, sailors or Marines who lost their lives in Afghanistan or Iraq. His religious beliefs claim that God is punishing the United States by killing off our military – all because he hates the idea that our nation has become tolerant to honosexuals.

“Fags” would be his preferred term (as in picket signs and people screaming “God Hates Fags!”), as in he hates the idea that we as a society look down on him for wanting to demonize individuals whose minds aren’t as closed as his.

The reverend’s antics have done nothing but offend the sensibilities of those of us who realize that people are people, and even made some of the more ideologically conservative of us realize how repulsive their thought processes are.

I’M SURE AT least a few of those ideologues take a look at Phelps, see how ridiculous and repulsive he is, and figure they want to be on the other side of this particular issue in the overall culture war in which our society is engaged.

The bottom line may well turn out to be that the more we let Phelps and his ilk speak, the more people will be driven over to the respectable and responsible segments of our society. That is the optimistic spin I’m putting on this particular court ruling.

So I’m going to express some sympathy for the family of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, whose father filed the lawsuit against Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church that evolved into Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling.

The family originally got their local court to find against Phelps and award a significant financial judgment, although that reward was overturned on appeal, and the Appeals Court’s ruling is what ultimately was supported by the Supreme Court.

HANG IN THERE. No matter how much Phelps may think he’s influencing us, the bulk of us realize it was your son/brother/cousin who made the real contribution to our society by protecting what our nation stands for and ought to be trying to spread throughout the rest of the world.

He even defended Phelps’ right to talk like a nitwit – AND my right to call him on his nonsense by writing this commentary.


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