Unacceptable Discourse

As you may know, the Westboro Baptist Church is a little band of twisted lunatics that stages demonstrations at, among other events, the funerals of American soldiers.  Here they declare that America is doomed because a vengeful God hates various people that the Westboro Baptist Church also happens to hate, and the soldiers are therefore knaves for dying in the defense of a doomed nation.  If you didn’t know that, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you about them.

Last month, the Supreme Court declared that Westboro demonstrations are protected as free speech under the First Amendment, and cannot be outlawed just because they offend everyone capable of sentient thought.  A bipartisan group of senators is proposing a law called the “SERVE Act” to make things tougher on the Westboro goons.  The name stands for “The Sanctity of Eternal Rest for Veterans,” and it would double the prohibition against disruptive noise around military funerals from 60 minutes to 120 minutes, along with doubling the private “buffer” area around the service and its access routes to 300 and 500 feet, respectively.  The idea is to push the protesters further into the background, and reduce the chance anyone paying respects to the fallen veteran will be disturbed by their antics.

Among the sponsors is Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who said, “This common sense legislation will ensure our heroes are buried with the honor and dignity they deserve.”  Another sponsor, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, added, “Families of military servicemen and women should have the right, the ability to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and peace… I can’t imagine anyone being against it, at least no one in their right mind.”

Margie Phelps of the Westboro church, who is not in her right mind, is most certainly against it.  “These pandering perverts have no respect for the laws of man or God,” she sneered to Fox News.  “Maybe next they can pass a law abolishing Hell.”  Now that’s just ridiculous.  The Senate wouldn’t abolish Hell.  There’s a lot of taxable activity going on down there.

Meanwhile, another eccentric pastor, Terry Jones of the First Church of the Flaming Koran, rolled into Dearborn, Michigan and announced he would protest Islam outside the Islamic Center of America.  The protest was not scheduled to include any Koran-burning, but Jones also made it clear he had not come to debate the finer points of Islamic doctrine over cups of mint tea with the imams. 

Dearborn chose to deny Jones a permit for his protest, citing reasons of “public safety.”  Instead, Jones was told he could demonstrate inside a “free speech zone” near City Hall.  According to an article in The Detroit News, prosecutors summoned him to the 19th District Court in Dearborn to answer “claims that his demonstration could cause a riot and demands he post a ‘peace bond’ to cover police costs.”

Jones insisted his protest would be “peaceful,” declared his intention to proceed whether he was issued a permit or not, and announced he would be bringing a firearm to protect himself, since the police seemed reluctant to handle his security.  He did indeed bring a gun to Michigan, and proceeded to accidentally discharge it into the floor of his car, after doing a TV interview with the local Fox affiliate.

It is simple enough to declare an absolute commitment to free speech, but much more difficult to follow that commitment into the penumbra of the First Amendment, a shadowy realm of fighting words and public indecency. 

It’s interesting to note the contrast between the two cases.  The senators behind the SERVE Act are not trying to shut down the odious speech of Westboro, or even bar them from demonstrating at military funerals.  Instead, they are trying to move them further away and extend the buffer of silence around the service, to prevent the fee speech of the demonstrators from interfering with the funeral.  There are already some restrictions in place, which the Act proposes to extend.

The principle behind the SERVE Act seems sound, even without considering the reaction of the audience to the content of the speech.  It doesn’t silence the demonstrators.  It inconveniences them, and reinforces the right of a captive private audience – which must be quiet during the ceremony by definition – to avoid hearing the offensive expression.

What if the Westboro crowd was a band of fervently pro-military super-patriots, who staged noisy and colorful demonstrations in support of the soldiers during their funerals?  That would still be disruptive, and while family members of the fallen veterans might appreciate the sentiment, they might also find themselves wishing their solemn and private ceremony were not interrupted by a circus act. 

Is a funeral service itself an act of free speech, which requires a certain atmosphere of privacy for its short duration… its meaning impossible to express properly in close proximity to a snarling idiot waving a “God Hates Fags” sign?

Keeping in mind that a city refusing to issue a permit is legally different from the Senate passing a national law, the response in Dearborn is still disturbingly different, because the express reason for telling Terry Jones he can’t demonstrate anywhere near the mosque is the anticipated violent reaction of the audience. 

Jones wasn’t going to do anything that would actually disrupt services inside the Islamic Center – a formidable structure whose walls are perfectly capable of blocking the noise from strident critics of Islam.  The faithful would have to see and hear him when arriving at the mosque to worship – just as those attending a military funeral will still have to sample the Westboro Baptist Experience on their way in, even if the SERVE Act is passed.  In both cases, passerby would still see the provocative speech in the desired context. 

That’s apparently unacceptable for someone protesting Islamic law in front of a mosque… and the city of Dearborn isn’t making the slightest effort to hide the reason why.  The Westboro demonstrators aren’t afraid of being beaten or killed by the angry families of fallen veterans.  No one claims they’re a threat to “public safety” that must be relocated to a distant “free speech” quarantine zone, lest they cause a riot. 

The outer limit of free speech is often described as “shouting fire in a crowded theater.”  The nature of the audience is irrelevant to understanding why that should be impermissible.  Whether the theater is filled with Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anyone else, shouting to disrupt the movie by starting a false panic is objectively wrong.  When the limit of free speech becomes subjective – and subject to the threat of violence – the spirit of the First Amendment has been utterly lost. 

In this case, Terry Jones’ right of free expression has been subjected to the implied threat of violence.  As far as I know, nobody from the mosque is actually threatening him.  The worshippers of the Islamic Center of America should be granted the respect and dignity of assuming that they are good Americans, as well as good Muslims, and can handle the free expression of others like reasonable adults.  If someone can’t handle it… well, that is why we have a government to defend our inalienable rights. 

Meanwhile, let good Americans pay their respects to our fallen military heroes in peace.  The Westboro Baptist Church can still miserably fail to defile their memories from 300 feet away.