Commentary: Westboro ruling was painful but right

The Miami HeraldMarch 11, 2011 


Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.


It is not easy being America. Maybe that’s why America often finds it hard to do.

Being America requires more than simply existing between certain geographic lines. Rather, it requires vindicating a set of ideals that are downright dangerous.

This would include the notion that all men and women are created equal and have from birth the right to live, be free and pursue personal happiness. Also that they enjoy freedom of — and from — religion, freedom to assemble, freedom from random search and seizure. And most dangerous of all: that they possess the absolute freedom to speak their minds.

What makes those promises dangerous is that they entrust people — not the smart people, not the good people, not the right people, but the people — with power. Enough to challenge authority, make trouble, thwart police — even enough to restrain government itself.

So yes, sometimes America finds it hard to be America. History is dotted with the big failures: the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery, the Trail of Tears, Plessy v Ferguson, the Japanese internment, the Red Scare, COINTELPRO.

Arguably more insidious are the smaller failures, the everyday acts of moral cowardice that come and go in the rush of daily events: terror mosque panics and Hispanic bashing, driving-while-black traffic stops and the banning of books from public libraries.

The reason it’s not easy being America is that there is always a temptation to avoid the demands of dangerous ideals, a temptation to find a more expedient way. That is what adds the taste of bittersweet to last week’s emphatic Supreme Court ruling in favor of Westboro Baptist Church.

Westboro, of course, is no more a church than the Playboy Mansion is. It is, rather, a boil on the buttock of reason, a tiny, Topeka, Kansas-based congregation of diseased minds whose entire raison d’être is to spread the following bizarre thesis: America has grown too tolerant of gays; therefore, God has turned against America. He gets His point across by killing American soldiers.

Westboro members spread this hateful perversion of the gospel by showing up at military funerals bearing signs that depict images of anal sex and slogans like: “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.” After this carnival of repugnance desecrated the 2006 funeral of a 20-year-old Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, his father, Albert, sued and won a $10.9 million verdict.

Westboro appealed. By a vote of 8 to 1, the Supremes vindicated the “church.” While noting that the protesters’ activities added to the “incalculable grief” of the Snyder family, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said we may not respond by punishing them.

“As a nation,” he wrote, “we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

And I don’t mind telling you: I had hoped the justices could find some loophole, some technical, legalistic way of restricting Westboro’s grotesque assaults while leaving intact the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. Part of me still wishes they had. But another part of me knows we do that all too often, seek, for reasons both admirable and repulsive, to compromise our own freedoms, weasel out of defending those dangerous rights.

Small wonder. Sometimes, those rights protect wrongs. But the thing is, rights too freely abridged are not rights at all, but privileges. And privileges can be taken away.

Last week’s ruling, then, repulsive as it was, disappointing as it was, was also correct, also a needed reminder that freedom is a messy thing. It is a reminder that strips innocence away like tree bark. Yes, it’s painful when America fails its own ideals. But sometimes, it’s painful when America does not.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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