The First Amendment and Hate Speech

There are two axioms of free speech -- one is the "fire in a theater" principle and the other states that "your right to swing your arm freely ends at the other person's nose."
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I don't know anyone worth taking seriously who is not in favor of freedom of speech. "First Amendment Rights," while not absolute (see "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater"), are probably the most sacred Constitutional guarantee of all to an overwhelming majority of Americans.

It gets hard, though, when that sacred right is exercised by someone you find morally repugnant. It doesn't matter if it's the KKK, the ACLU, the right or the left, everyone seems to have a point at which they say "yes, free speech, but not that free." Such is the case for me with the twin hate-mongerers Terry Jones and Fred Phelps. I have to swallow hard and remind myself that, in a free society, any restriction on speech or expression must be taken under very serious consideration and pass some very stringent tests regarding public safety, clear and present danger, and the like lest we become like so many countries where speech is limited to what the government or representatives of a supposed majority say is OK.

Jones, you'll remember, is the pastor of a 50-member church, most of the members his own family, in Gainesville, Florida who made news by threatening to publicly burn copies of the Holy Qu'ran a month or so ago. He garnered media attention way out of proportion to any sane estimate of his importance, and was arguably responsible for deaths of US troops in Afghanistan when Muslim elements there didn't bother to wait to see if any books got burned and took lethal umbrage at the suggestion that they might be.

Phelps, also a "pastor" travels around the country with his family (including his lawyer who, conveniently, is also his daughter) and demonstrates at the funerals of service people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with signs that say things like "God hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" (no kidding -- you can look it up) because, in his twisted mind, America's war deaths are God's punishment for the US tolerating homosexuality in our midst.

Both these individuals are execrable in so many ways, starting with cloaking themselves in the mantle of Christian clergy, that it's leaves decent people speechless with outrage just to think of them. You don't have to like or approve of Islam or homosexuality -- that's your business - but simple human decency and the principles on which the Constitution was written and on which this country was founded are revolted by what they say and do.

Notwithstanding that, however, we must stand for their right to say and do those things. We do not, however, have to shield them from the consequences of their actions. The city of Gainesville has presented Jones with a bill for $200,000 for added security and other expenses incurred by the city because of his stunt. I sincerely hope they will do everything in their power to collect it, and that, as reported, it will bankrupt financially his "church," which is already bankrupt morally. There are two axioms of free speech -- one is the "fire in a theater" principle cited earlier and the other states that "your right to swing your arm freely ends at the other person's nose," and that is what we are dealing with here. In addition, I think that the families of those killed as a direct result of Jones' actions have grounds to sue him as well.

As for Phelps, he's already been sued -- by Al Snyder, the father of a fallen soldier who was so devastated by the Phelps family's demonstration at his son's funeral that he could find no way to deal with it other than to try to stop them. It seems unlikely that Snyder will succeed -- Phelps and his family are punctilious about the letter of the law as regards their odious demonstrations and they will most likely be sheltered by the First Amendment. Worse, Snyder is suing them at his own expense while Phelps, as noted, travels with his built-in lawyer. To make matters worse, one court ordered Snyder to pay Phelps' legal expenses.

We can't stop the likes of Jones or Phelps -- to do so would be to endanger everyone's First Amendment rights -- but we can do everything in our power to see that they don't profit from their actions, either financially or by gaining notoriety. And we can exercise our own right to speak by denouncing them as decent human beings must.

Also published in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community