Free speech worthy even when offensive

Originally published October 8, 2010

Pretty much everyone, myself included, really hates the Westboro Baptist Church.

They’re bigots and they’re just awful people. It takes a certain kind of a person to stand at any funeral, let alone a soldier’s, and hold up signs reading “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

I’m pretty crass, and I’ve been known to, on occasion, throw some not-so-nice words around. But writing what they print on those signs was hard for even me to do.

Here’s an even harder thing to write – they have every right to do what they’re doing.

I’m not saying they should or that I agree with them, but they are practicing their First Amendment rights, just like I’m doing in writing this column.

Fred Phelps and his bat shit crazy clan have been picketing soldiers’ funerals for years and years. They travel the country to do it and made quite an impact and garnered a lot of media attention.

So why am I writing about them now, when they’re essentially old news?

The church has been sued by Albert Snyder, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2006. The case, which had been tossed out by a federal appeals court, but an appeal was heard by the Supreme Court for the first time on Wednesday.

In front of the high court, Snyder asked the justices to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the members of the Topeka, Kan., church. The case is laden with emotions.

“I had one chance to bury my son, and it was taken from me,” Snyder told the court.

And he’s right. He is mind-numbingly right. I’ve covered soldiers’ funerals and written stories about their lives. I’ve talked to their families, their friends and their fellow soldiers.

I’ve watched as those flag-draped coffins are unloaded. Every funeral is sad, but watching one where the dead person is usually about my age and died fighting for this country – it gets emotional for everyone involved.

Yet I still argue the group, deemed psychological terrorists by veterans groups and 42 senators, has the right to do what it does.

No one agrees with what they’re doing. Literally no one with the exception of the 70 or so members of the congregation. They have no apologists.

Eliminating a group’s right to free speech is one hell of a slippery slope. Much of the U.S. has been built on the First Amendment, and even the consideration of snapping those rights away from anyone needs to be met with serious concern and caution.

Think about it. If the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t allowed to hold its protests, what’s to stop governments from stopping other kinds of protests. What’s to stop the courts from censoring newspapers and TV stations? Very little.

Sure, it may seem like a huge jump from stopping a bunch of bigots from tormenting solders’ families to stopping the Chicago Tribune from printing an editorial people in power don’t agree with.

And as someone who paid his rent this month with money I earned because the First Amendment allows for freedom of the press, that scares the hell out of me.

I think Voltaire said it best: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

I may not be willing to fight to the death for the Phelps clan, but I was willing to write this column.