You're Either With Free Speech, or Against It?

Four years ago I riled against a group that routinely exercises -- grossly abuses -- their, our, sacred First Amendment rights. They regularly appear at funerals of our troops and vilely -- through their shameful signs and tactics -- desecrate the funerals and the memories of our fallen heroes.

They have also staged protests at Jewish temples, at the World War II memorial and at schools, spewing their despicable, hate-filled ideology everywhere.

I wrote then:

Imagine your only son is killed in Iraq or in Afghanistan while serving his country.

Imagine the day arrives for your son's funeral and family and friends are somberly gathered for the services.

Imagine a group of people appearing at your son's funeral carrying signs proclaiming "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Fag Troops," "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates You," "Semper Fi Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "Thank God for IEDs."

Imagine the shock, the pain, the stress, the outrage.

What was at issue, I felt, was the Westboro Baptist Church's First Amendment right to freely exercise their freedom of speech and religious beliefs vs. the rights of families to peacefully assemble at private funeral services to mourn the deaths of their loved ones -- without intimidation and abuse.

I unequivocally decided in favor of the rights of the families and I continued to write about and protest and abhor such abuse of our freedom of expression rights.

It would eventually rest with the U.S. Supreme Court to decide, whether the rights claimed by the Phelps group trump the rights of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters to grieve and pay their last respects to their departed loved ones; whether such free speech rights trump one's right to entrust a loved one to one's God with honor and in privacy, without being stripped of one's dignity and final memories.

Well, on Mar 2, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with me and with millions of Americans and ruled that the First Amendment protects these fundamentalist church members who mount such disgraceful protests outside military funerals.

I wrote, "I respectfully disagree, but I also respectfully accept the decision in hopes that it will not open the floodgates to similar misuses of our First Amendment."

Today, after the horrific terror attacks on the publishers and staff of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, we are again at the same crossroads: Freedom of expression vs. "abuses" of such freedom.

Some feel that Charlie Hebdo -- by poking fun at and ridiculing cultures, religions and religious figures (keep in mind, Hebdo caricatures many cultures and religions) -- crossed the line, created prejudices, perhaps even incited hatred and violence.

This time, I find myself squarely defending Charlie Hebdo's freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

Why the reversal of opinion? What are the differences between the Phelps group and Charlie Hebdo?

Could it be that the Phelps group, in my view, viciously attacked ideals and people I deeply value: tolerance, our military and their families, etc.?

Could it be that Charlie Hebdo frequently ridicules movements and people who, in my view, have hijacked and radicalized a good religion, who have committed the most heinous barbarities in the name of their "new" religion, who threaten everything we stand for?

Whatever the reasons, I have soberly and perhaps belatedly concluded -- and I hate to paraphrase such infamous words -- that "You're either with free speech, or against it."

One cannot condemn or take away one person's or group's free speech rights while tolerating others' simply and solely because of personal views, because of one's own allegiances, politics, religion or morality.

Many will disagree.

Some will remove the question mark from the title of this piece. Some will leave it there. Many more will rewrite it completely.

When and if you do so, I may disagree with you, I may express my outrage, but I will not censor you, condemn you, or worse.

Because, I have leaned, that's what "Free Speech" is all about.