The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court regularly profess ardent devotion to what they divine as having been the intentions of the framers of our nation’s Constitution.
Yet the court, with Justice Samuel Alito Jr. the sole dissenter, recently ruled it a protected right of the Fred Phelps clan and their Westboro Baptist Church to inflict further pain on grieving families by staging hateful demonstrations at the funerals of members of the American military, who gave their lives in the service of this country.
Surely there’s a contradiction here.
For is it not reasonable to assume that the founding fathers took a rather dim view of public obscenity? And by any fair reading of prevailing community standards, isn’t the behavior of the Phelpses and their church obscene?
They not only offend public decency. They dishonor their faith as surely as terrorists who murder in the name of Islam dishonor theirs. In saying that, I claim the same protection invoked by the Westboro Church protesters in defense of their disgusting conduct.
Certainly free speech is an important right – indispensable in, among other things, the practice of journalism.
But no right is altogether without limits.
Any common thief has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers before being punished. However, I, too, have certain specific rights. And as a practical matter, if I hear him breaking down a door or climbing through a window of my house, it’s extremely unlikely he’ll see his day in court.
I once heard a young preacher stand on a picnic table at his rural Baptist church and declare that a vote for John Kennedy would be “a vote for the pope.”
In that moment I dismissed him as a wooden-headed bigot. But I didn’t blame all Baptists on his account, any more than I blame them for the wickedness of one Topeka church or all Catholics for the pedophilia of some priests.
The Westboro nuts, for all their offensiveness, are not a danger. At worst, they are an irritation and embarrassment.
I suspect that the attention given by the national press to their nasty little performances must feed the Phelpses’ sense of self-importance. In fact, it only suggests how widely shared is the contempt their activities generate.
Instead of all the publicity, their funeral protests – like the recent ruling by the nation’s high court – would be better handled in the same way French pedestrians deal with dog droppings on the sidewalk.
Just hold our noses and silently walk on.