Notes from a proud free-speech junkie

Once again, people who believe in “free speech for me but not for thee,” are outraged by a U.S. Supreme … Continued

Once again, people who believe in “free speech for me but not for thee,” are outraged by a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Americans to spew venom that offends anyone with a sense of decency. In this case, by an 8-1 majority–a rare example of agreement between the conservative and liberal blocs on the high court–the justices upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket near funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Westboro hatemongers (most of whom seem to belong to one obsessive extended family) think that the deaths of American soldiers represent God’s punishment on the nation for tolerating homosexuality.

Snyder v. Phelps is not, as some commentators have mistakenly implied and inferred, a First Amendment religious freedom case. It is a pure freedom of speech case. (Whether a church that seems to consist mainly of the relatives of one man, Fred Phelps, ought to be tax exempt is another issue. It is worth noting that this “Baptist church” is not a member of any official Baptist convention.) These godly folks from Topeka, Kan. (yes, the same state where a doctor who performed abortions was murdered) carry signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” near military funerals. The demonstrators take care to stand at whatever legal distance is required by city ordinances. There is no doubt that such behavior further wounds grieving relatives but the court majority rightly decided that Americans do not have the right to be protected from hurt feelings or even from the deepest emotional wounds that can be inflicted by repulsive speech.

Unlike Europe, the United States has no laws against “hate speech” unless it directly incites a crime. You cannot prosecute anyone for saying that gays, or Jews, or African-Americans, take your pick, are subhumans. You can only prosecute if the speaker says, “These people across the street are subhuman and you should kill them now.” Many European countries do have laws against speech and publications considered offensive by a wide variety of groups.

In the United Kingdom, where broad libel laws make it ridiculously easy for public figures to charge authors with libel, Holocaust deniers can take the historian Deborah Lipstadt to court for exposing them. In France, the foul-mouthed designer John Galliano faces charges of verbal harassment following an anti-Semitic tirade against a couple in a restaurant. Is France more free of racial or ethnic prejudice than the U.S. because it has laws making racial/ethnic insults a crime? Does the United Kingdom have better scholarship because a serious historian can be taken to court after expressing opinions and drawing conclusions the plaintiff does not like?

The “free speech for me but not for thee” people always have a rationale for banning some form of speech that they find particularly offensive. The American Civil Liberties Union lost 30,000 members in the late 1970s because it defended the right of the American Nazi Party to hold a march in Skokie, Ill., a community with a heavy concentration of Holocaust survivors. The ACLU won the case. The American Nazis never actually marched, but the ACLU was absolutely right in its stance.

Similar issues were raised by feminists about pornography in the late 1970s, and I lost a number of friends in the movement (who called me a free-speech junkie then) because I opposed the desire of some feminists to criminalize pornography. The point I made then in a column in The New York Times, “Notes from a Free Speech Junkie” (one of the most widely anthologized pieces I have written), was that non-feminists (such as spokesmen for conservative religions) who wanted to censor pornography were frequently the same people who also wanted to censor feminist writing about women’s health and women’s bodies. They considered the very word “vagina” an obscenity. There is no way of censoring one kind of speech without opening every other kind of speech to censorship.

Attorney Rob Boston makes an important point about Snyder v. Phelps this week in “The Wall of Separation,” the official blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He notes that the recent decision vitiates the argument of the religious right that liberals want to pass “hate speech” laws to silence right-wing Christians. “To hear them tell it,” Boston writes, “‘hate speech’ laws are just around the corner, and Pastor Bob is only one step away from being tossed in the hoosegow if he dares to read from the Book of Leviticus in the pulpit.”

Another salutary effect of allowing vicious people like the Westboro group to speak is that they reveal exactly who they are and what they stand for. When these people insult mourners at funerals–as Galliano insulted a woman he thought was Jewish in a Parisian bar–they show the naked face of bigotry. That is a face worth seeing without polite disguises that many bigots assume in society. It is also a face worth seeing without the cloak of anonymity that the Internet provides for bloggers spreading hate.

No society has ever been better off because speech, as distinct from criminal conduct, was restricted. And there is no such thing as a First Amendment junkie. You cannot overdose on free speech, because free speech is its own best antidote.

Susan Jacoby
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  • areyousaying

    Would someone please explain to me how Phelps can use the nomenclature “Baptist Church” and why Baptists do try to stop him from doing this unless they secretly agree with him?If they claim there is nothing they can do about it, can I start one called Saint Peter-lover Catholic Church?

  • Sara121

    Susan, good column. Free speech is one of the most important inalienable rights we have and it should be vigorously defended at every turn. As much as I think these Westboro people are complete nutjobs, I agreed with Court’s decision. I also agreed that our other pastor friend in Florida had a free speech right to burn books, though on that I find the burning of books (religious or otherwise) a form of censorship itself and objected to it on those grounds. But he still had a right to make his statement no matter how vile that statement was. I think we need to talk more about what free speech and the First Amendment means not just for Americans but for others around the world who get upset and don’t understand when America doesn’t stamp out something that reasonable people agree is objectionable. Our Florida would-be book burner and the reaction to that is a good example. We take it for granted I think, but the concept might not be as transferable and translatable as we think it is.

  • eezmamata

    On the day I see large numbers of christians showing up to one of these Phelps events to protest against them I’ll believe that christians oppose themUntil then, the christians are silently supporting them. Just like the muslims are supporting terrorists. It’s the same damn thing.

  • areyousaying

    Can no Baptists answer my question? Why don’t you try to stop Phelps from calling it Westboro BAPTIST Church?

  • jehovahinfo

    Harassment by religious extremistJehovah’s Witnesses instigated court decisions in 1942 which involved cursing a police officer calling him a fascist and to get in your face at the door steps,….this same JW 1942 court decision upheld infamous Phelps hate church in 2011

  • usapdx

    For total true freedom of speech in the U.S.A.for all, the TAX EXAMPT ACT must be repeled account of the law’s rules. It would be only right with the debt by the federal government and the states debts also, everyone must pay their just taxes without exception.

  • paulhume

    areyousaying – the term Baptist is in the public domain. So is the term Catholic. You could indeed start an anything-you-like Catholic Church. You might even be able to call it s Roman Catholic church. Some schismatic, ie. sedevacantist, congregations call themselves Catholic and the RC church has no legal grounds to make them cease and desist. I myself am a member of a Gnostic Catholic church.The various Baptist conferences have no legal basis for trying to make Westboro stop calling itself a Baptist church.

  • globalone

    “everyone must pay their just taxes without exception”I’m assuming, of course, that you are also including almost 50% of the U.S. population that pay no federal taxes whatsoever?And we’d also have to include organizations like the American Red Cross and the United Way? That would be nice. Sorry we can’t help with the disaster, we had to give 35% of our income to the federal government. You could ask them for help but I’m sure they’ve already spent it.

  • Sara121

    Here’s why I think religions should retain their tax exempt status. When you pay taxes, you have the right to then expect additional public goods from the government, beyond your constitutional protections, such as schools, roads, defense, fire departments, and so forth. Religious organizations also retain their constitutional rights to speak, to assemble, and to practice their faith. But if they were to pay taxes, they would then also have the right to expect from the government additional protections or services. Individual members already get schools, roads, and police since they pay taxes. Religious organizations should not need to expect anything additional from the government. Government should not want religions’ money; nor should religions want government’s money. Ergo, tax exempt.

  • cecilg

    Susan: Thanks for another excellent, thoughtful piece. This should be required reading in high school and universities.I don’t always agree with what you write, but this one is excellent.

  • davivman

    A rare agreement between conservative and liberal blocs of the Supreme Court? Hardly. I suppose you too buy into the myth that members of the Supreme Court are merely political agents that disagree on everything. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Of the 27 cases before the court in 2010, only 4 had more than one dissenting opinion (and three of those had only 2 descents). Of the 92 cases in 2009, only 34 had more than one dissent and the majority those cases were not divided along the traditionally assumed political leanings. If you look at all of the decision’s over the last decade you will find that there is consensus far more often than there is not. You will additionally find that when there are disagreements, they typically do not fall along political divides.

  • Jihadist

    You cannot “overdose” on “free speech”?Some “free speech” can make you want to vomit verbal venom. If one feel overloaded, overwhelmed, “overdosed”, by excessive amount of “free speech” (verbal, written, actions)and excessive reactions to it on any given issue, the best antidote is to pull the plug of your PCs, turn off your TV,radio,laptops, iPads, smartphones etc.24 hours of such withdrawal as antidote or cure to being a “free speech junkie” should do it. Caveat : When you hook up again with your ICT tools, you may find that that you missed breaking news on attempts to remove certain unsavoury leaders, a new judgement by the Supremes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Is natural earthquakes and tsunamis more “bearable” than the quakes, tremors,temblors, tsunamis of “free speech”, and the fight for freedom (for and from)? Yes and no. And leaving my “yes and no” not elaborated.

  • Jihadist

    What eloquent nonsense some statements here on Muslims “silently” supporting terrorists, not “standing” up to them etc.In that eloquent nonsense spirit…. Muslims are insane in “supporting” American economy in buying its cars, movies, junk food etc. as Americans has contempt for them and want to tell them what to do, think and impose democracy on them. Muslims are insane in “silently supporting” some American businessmen who they know are supporting Israel financially and politically from profits made in Muslim markets. Muslims are insane to “tolerate” Americans working in American firms selling products in Muslim markets overseas venting and spewing hate and taking hateful measures against American Muslims and overseas Muslims. Irritating and infuriating is it not? That Muslims outside America are really into against and replacing their own leaders and governments instead of obsessing about and wanting “death” to America and to “push” Israel “into the sea”.Must be the weekend night hangover. Oh wait, I don’t drink.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    I haven’t yet read of aid going to Japan, although China and other countries have offered help. This is probably the country’s worst disaster since Hiroshima, Nagasaki.The nation’s geography has been changed forever. AT least a thousand are dead and many more missing. People have been treated for radiation poisoning.I’ve read that the nuclear reactors were installed ca. 1970. Experts here have questions on whether they were consistently upgraded to meet new licensing requirements. Maybe, all countries with reactors ought to look into this.In the meantime, my heart goes out to the people of Japan. An alternative might be to send Fred Phelps and his inbred family/congregation to vacation with Gadaffi. On the other hand, they’d probably get along just fine.

  • Sara121

    We have started giving aid. One of the advantages to having folks stationed all over the world is that we are readily available to help out when disaster strikes. In fact, combatant commanders have to have contingency plans on the shelf that are updated every so often so that they can go into action quickly when the need arises. I also saw some news clips of USAID gearing up with food and water and other supplies. For those interested in donating, here’s a good web site to go through.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    Yes, I’ve seen that we’ve started. The problem apparently not only for us is access.