The Sad State of America

Posted on April 1, 2010

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This is the world my children will grow up in.

There is a difference between exercising one’s right to free speech and blatantly abusing it.

Unfortunately, I feel so strongly about this subject that the only way I can proceed is to argue for each position in turn…

Pro — in favor of Westboro Church’s actions

If we examine other governments throughout history we’ll find that one of the first things a government does in order to restrict its people is prevent the open discussion and distribution of ideas, usually out of fear that those ideas will lead to the that government’s downfall.  America was founded on the principle of free speech, and the right to assemble.  It’s the first amendment to our constitution.  It’s one of the basic tenets that enables this country to be as powerful as it is.

There’s not much else to say, really.  As individuals and as groups we have the right to voice our views about any subject.  We can print anything, say anything or post anything in any public forum.  There are some restrictions, to be sure: a judge in a courtroom might restrict who can speak and at what times; schools can limit certain forms of expression, such as curse words or racial slurs; but these places aren’t, strictly speaking, public places.  A person standing on a street corner, writing letters to the editor of a local newspaper or posting to a public forum is well within his or her rights to say what he or she wants.

Con — what’s really happening

Those who follow Reverend Phelps to his protests at funerals are not just acting in poor taste, but with poor judgment.  There is a time and a place to speak your mind.  There is a way to be effective at getting your message across.  If these people truly cared about having a positive on people, if they actually cared about changing the hearts and minds of America, they’d realize that their actions are doing nothing more than hardening people against their views.  Once your audience has it in their heads that you’re nothing more than a deranged bigot, they won’t listen no matter what you say.  And protesting someone’s funeral is probably the best way to make sure that you will never be taken seriously.

Plus, it’s just plain rude.

Pro — recognizing the danger

Are we to ignore wrongs committed during a person’s lifetime just because they’re dead?  Must we hold our tongues because someone might be “offended” by the truth?  Whether or not you agree with what the Westboro Baptists have to say, they have the right to say it, and to demand that they not say it just because someone doesn’t want to hear it is one step closer to imposing restrictions on speech.  Instead of government enacting a law that limits our freedoms, society itself is coming down and saying, “Well you can say what you want, just don’t do it where anyone can hear.”

This attitude effectively misses the point of free speech, that one must be heard in addition to being allowed to speak.  Without an audience words are just noise.

Con — a legal violation

Hate speech is a concept that holds little ground in the free speech debate.  I bring this up because what Westboro advocates are doing is spreading hateful views through their words and actions.  If they were protesting against African- or Asian-Americans there’d be an instant uproar.  There should be, but legally speaking they have the right to say something like that if they want.  And they’ve executed that right, and we have the right to turn away and ignore them.

But another issue here is the limited interpretation of the First Amendment.  People often cite “free speech” without considering 1) that just because you have a right doesn’t mean you have to use it in all possible instances, and 2) that when you gather to express your views to the nation, it has to be done peaceably.  That’s right, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting … the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”  If the assembly isn’t peaceful, then the group responsible really doesn’t have the right to gather.

So is it a peaceful assembly when people stand outside of a funeral and tell the deceased’s family that their son is going to hell because he fought for a nation that harbors homosexuals?

Last Point: Those who insist on getting away with slanderous language on the basis of free speech invariably do more harm to their position than good.  When someone shouts a disagreeable view and refuses to stop shouting on the basis of a protected right, people regard them as ignorant.  In other words, keep up the work, Reverend Phelps.  All you’ve accomplished is you’ve made America hate you as much as you hate America.

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