The Corner

Free Speech Phelps

I think the Wall Street Journal makes some excellent points in favor of maximizing free speech in Snyder v. Phelps, and I’m almost with them. I’m not a free-speech fetishist in every realm of public life, but I am something of an absolutist when it comes to political speech. The founders didn’t intend to protect the rights of snuff-film makers and crush-video peddlers but they surely intended to protect the rights of political dissidents and the like.

All of that said, I guess I just can’t go all the way over to their side on this. Disrupting funerals for pretty much any reason is in bad taste. Making a mockery of the funerals of dead American servicemen is beyond disgusting. If ever there was a reasonable zone of privacy for families, such funerals are it. Why a locality can’t pass laws that respect that privacy is beyond me.

The Journal notes:

Because the protesters stood at a distance of roughly a thousand feet from the funeral, they neither posed a physical threat to the mourners nor disrupted the service. Unlike the rules against malicious falsehoods covered by libel law, no such standard is applicable to a church peddling hateful ideas. In its own brief to the Supreme Court, the Westboro church calls its protests “loose, figurative hyperbolic speech . . . which would not cause a reasonable person to believe actual facts were asserted.”

I may not know enough about the specific facts of the case or the law (No, really, it’s possible), so I’m a bit confused as to why the father sued in the first place if it’s truly the case these jerks didn’t disrupt the service in some way. But the fact that protesters stood a thousand feet away sort of makes my point (I’m assuming there was some requirement that they do so). What if the protesters stood ten feet away? Five feet? Surely, there’s some reasonable requirement to keep the protesters at a distance that the Journal editors themselves seem to implicitly recognize.

Like obscenity, this simply strikes me as one of these you-know-it-when-you-see-it cases. A bunch of idiots screaming and carrying signs reading “God hates fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” at a Marine’s funeral is simply obscene. And local officials should be allowed to regulate obscenity with a relatively free hand.

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