Fred Phelps and Free Speech
A question from the e-mail:
Your opinion has always shown to be thoughtful and expressed very well, even for those few instances where I disagree with you. For that reason, and I know request week is over, that I feel obliged to seek your own particular view on something. Recently, a lot of attention has centered on Mr. Fred Phelps. Several states have begun legislation to ban his protesting at the funerals of soldiers. A recent article, which was submitted at fark.com discusses the legal implications of the legislation and the precedence for and against it.
I always have respected the right to free speech, despite whether I agree with the protester. However, being a soldier myself, I find the fact of Mr Phelps protesting funerals of soldiers and causing such grief on their families to be horrible. The personal freedom of Phelps vs the right of the families is a delicate one with the right to privacy and speech both threatened by a situation such as this one.
So, basically, what do you think? Is this man invading the families’ rights? Your opinion would be much appreciated.
First off, as a procedural note, you don’t have to wait until a request week to ask me about my thoughts on topics — shoot me off an e-mail any time. Every time someone suggests a topic, that’s an entry where I don’t have to wonder what I’m going to write about. And that makes me happy.
Now, on to Fred Phelps: Personally I think Fred Phelps is a rat-bag son of a bitch, and if someone decided that pummelling the bastard into a coma was worth a stint in jail, I wouldn’t shed a single tear for Phelps, and would possibly bake the assailant some cookies. Having said that, I’ve also said that I believe the best test of free speech is one’s willingness to let the most odious person you know shout vile crap at the top of his lungs. Phelps is easily one of the most vile people around, and Lord knows he shouts a lot of crap.
My own feeling on the matter is similar to Eugene Volokh’s in the article linked to above (which is on the National Review site, not on the Fark.com site, although I’m sure it was indeed linked to there). I think it’s reasonable for states and/or communities to legislate some distance between the funeral and the protestors, but I think you have to let them protest. Volokh worries particularly about expanding the home-based ban on protesting (carved out in Frisby v. Schultz) to apply to funerals because of the slippery slope problems it entails, and I would have to agree with that — it’s one thing for a presumption of peace in one’s home, but it’s another at a funeral in what is essentially an open and public space, and being laid to rest isn’t the same as being at home. I see the slippery slope here as being pretty slippery.
From a legal point of view, as much as Phelps disgusts me, and regardless of how much I look forward to him and his odious clutch of followers feculently rotting in Satan’s rectum for all eternity some time in the geologically near future, I don’t see how you can deny him his right to protest. However, there is nothing to say that Phelp’s protests can’t and shouldn’t be counteracted, and indeed this has been something that’s been done. For example, a group of motorcycle riders known as the Patriot Guard Riders attends the services of fallen service members (at the invitation of the families), and shield the families thought the clever use of flags, songs and motorcyles. Makes me want to go out and buy a motorcycle, it does.
Is Fred Phelps invading the privacy of these grieving families? Of course he is; that’s his intent. And Phelps, while being a tightly-puckered sphincter of pure hate, is also not exactly stupid; he knows what he can get away with. No matter what restrictions are placed on funeral protests, Phelps and the babbling pack of fecal smears whom he claims as followers will sit right at the legal edge and do their thing. Short of their bus careening wildly off the Interstate on their way back to Topeka, crushing the lot of them into a howling mass of insensate tissue, their souls pulled screaming toward Hell, there’s little that will stop them.
What is heartening is that people like the Patriot Riders and others will show up on their own dime and stand to remind the families of the fallen that the vast majority of Americans, whatever their political beliefs or feelings about the current conflict, honor the service these men and women have given to their country and the sacrifices that they made — and that the vast majority of Americans stand with the families of these fallen, and grieve for what has been lost. That’s why Fred Phelps loses every time he shows up. There are more good people than people like him, and they’re happy to show up to make that point. And that’s a fine use of free speech, I think.