Thursday, November 01, 2007

Emotion and Bad Law: The Snyder v. Westboro (Phelps) verdict

So, the US District Court (Baltimore) has awarded Albert Snyder $10.9 million dollars. The verdict came against the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, a fundamentalist cult operated by the Fred Phelps family. Phelps is well-known for his anti-homosexual rantings, which he takes to an extreme: in the current case, he and his church members protested outside the funeral of Lance Cpl. Mathhew Snyder, a young soldier who died in Iraq in March 2006. Phelps and his minions regularly protest around the country carrying signs that proclaim, "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates America." They believe that the carnage in Iraq is God's condemnation on the United States for this country's toleration of homosexuality. The dead soldiers father (Albert) sued for emotional distress, and won.

Emotional issue. Terrible Verdict.

I agree, Phelps is a madman. A raving lunatic. An obsessed crusader. His antics are disgusting. His mere appearance at these funerals is disgusting, despicable, heartless, and mean-spirited. His theology is off the wall.

It is also protected by the US Constitution.

That speech which is most abhorrent is precisely that speech that must be protected.

If we begin to punish speech which is heartless and meanspirited, we have started down a slippery slope. Does that mean that members of the US Nazi party should *not* have the right to parade, if it upsets Jewish residents or holocaust survivors? Does it mean that racists should no longer have the right to give political speeches if it upsets a black citizen who remembers the days of southern lynchings?

Lets take it further: Does it mean that cities should be able to ban Gay Pride parades and festivals because it deeply offends its religious citizens? Think about this, we really want to punish and ban and fine speech that is found to be 'offensive?'

Once we say that offensive speech is not protected speech, we have destroyed the very concept of Freedom of Speech. What Phelps does is repugnant, and he is properly vilified in the media for his nonsense. Frankly, I wouldnt even mind if someone decked him. I might even be tempted to deliver the blow myself....

But the government must not punish offensive speech - or we *all*in trouble - especially those of us who find ourselves in minority communities.

The verdict does not mean that the Snyders will receive compensation. the Church and the Phelps' will assuredly hide most of their assets, if they have any. But it does cast one more dangerous precedent that will come back to hurt us all. 9/11 became an excuse for chipping away at civil liberties.. We now readily engage in the very activities we used to chide the Soviet Union for (warrantless wiretaps, secret prisons, torture, passports requirements, Real ID). The banning of 'offensive' speech is simply one more step down the road towards a totalitarian society.