We Americans like to sound off. It’s as natural to us as breathing. Thus, the most cherished of rights protected under the Constitution is the freedom of speech in the First Amendment — and not, as some would have us believe, the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment.
So important to the American way of life is the ability to speak one’s mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has extended it to flag burning and other activities that sometimes don’t seem related. But some clearly obnoxious and tasteless self-expressions clearly tax our tolerance and leave us wondering just how far the privilege goes.
We know that protected speech doesn’t extend infinitely. We have a responsibility not to engage in verbal assaults. Hate speech that can bring about violence fits in this category, and more and more has become an object of legislative attention.
Perhaps the most distasteful example of hate speech is aimed at the gay and lesbian community and is being carried out by a family that claims it are doing so in the name of Christianity. The Phelps family — as many of you already know — run a tiny Baptist church in Topeka, Kan., from which they regularly sally forth to commit acts that challenge the very teachings they profess to uphold.
There are few words that can describe just how despicable these people really are under the leadership of Fred Phelps, an octogenarian lawyer, minister and all-around troublemaker whose rabidity would make Kansas’ John Brown wince. While his taunts aimed at homosexuality are jarring — causing him and his followers to be banned in the United Kingdom — they almost pale in the hatefulness of the family’s most publicized act: disrupting the funerals of American service members killed in action. According to the Phelps clan, God hates not only gays but also soldiers and presumably their families, and has assigned the Phelps clan to carry out his work.
Fortunately, some steps have been taken to remove the Phelps demonstrations a distance away from where grief-stricken mothers, fathers and spouses are honoring their loved ones. In 2006, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, and then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a law establishing a 150-feet no-picket zone around funerals in 2007.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will decide whether these indescribable violations of human decency carried out by the family are protected by the Constitution, which a U.S. appeals court said is the case.
Aside from the basic repugnance of the Phelps family’s activity, how could it be anything but an unwarranted intrusion on the most painful moment in the lives of mothers and fathers? Any decision otherwise by the court would seem an almost tragic disconnect with the rules of civilization. Is that too over-the-top?
As a journalist, the First Amendment has been the guiding light throughout my career. The defense of its freedoms has been a constant aim. At times, it seems we must accept that free speech comes in many forms whether we like it or not. But we must also understand there are boundaries to this freedom that shouldn’t be crossed. Whatever the court decides will become the law. We only hope we can live with it.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.