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Free speech: No exceptions and no compromise

By Scott Tibbs, October 11, 2010

There is little doubt that the practice of picketing military funerals by the Westboro Baptist "church" is disgusting, depraved and anti-Christian. Some are arguing that this speech is so out of line that it should not be protected by the Constitution. In an October 5 editorial, the Indianapolis Star agrees with this sentiment and argues that "keeping Westboro's bigots out of view and earshot of families in pain" will not put the First Amendment in peril.

Here's the problem. The First Amendment is not needed to protect speech when everyone approves of or likes that speech. The true test of the First Amendment is when speech is universally loathsome and offensive. Once we set a precedent that some speech is not protected, that precedent can be used by government to further restrict free speech. This is why the ACLU - a group that is no fan of Nazis - fights to protect the free speech rights of Nazis.

If the Supreme Court rules that the free speech rights of the WBC can be restricted, will anti-abortion protests be far behind? After all, the graphic signs are offensive to a great many people. Supporters of those signs (including me) argue that they are necessary to shake the public out of its apathy. Should images of the result of abortion be banned, or removed to a "free speech" ghetto - because they are offensive?

What about abortion opponents who picket and counsel outside of abortion clinics, with or without the signs? Should there be a "free speech zone" to keep abortion opponents away from "clinics" that kill children? Keep in mind that a number of children - including several in Bloomington - have been saved from the murderous clutches of Planned Parenthood. Abortion opponents need to watch this case very closely.

The Star argues in its closing paragraph that "it is only Westboro. Someday, the bizarre phenomenon will fade away." That final statement undermines their entire argument. If this will fade away on its own, why do we need to take a razor blade to the First Amendment and carve out a dangerous exception that will (not could, will) be used to silence legitimate protest in the future?

Previous articles:

♣   Bloomington United... against censorship -- June 08, 2002

♣   Is it evangelism or pride? -- October 23, 2004

♣   Thoughts on anti-homosexual protests -- December 12, 2005

♣   A dangerous challenge to free speech -- November 6, 2007

♣   More on the Westboro Baptist "Church" ruling -- November 20, 2007

♣   The 2008 Rally for Life: Follow Up -- January 30, 2008