Friday, March 12, 2010

Snyder vs. Phelps and the Price of Freedom

It was perhaps inevitable that America's third most relentless attention hogs (Hi, Glenn! Hi, Sarah!) should make their way back into the baleful glare of the national limelight.

This last week, the Supreme Court began consideration of a case against Westboro Baptist, that sad dark cult of intensive hatred that blights Topeka, Kansas and is misused to assail the entire reputation of Christian faith. One of the many families who lost a soldier-son in recent conflict filed suit against Phelps after his family engaged in one of their trademarked hate-fests outside of the young man's funeral. After an initial $5 million dollar verdict for inflicting emotional distress, an appellate court overturned the award. Now it has come before the highest court in the land.

The issue is freedom of speech. Phelps and his brood are justifiably despised by essentially everyone. Even the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Phelps, described his activities as "highly offensive" and "repugnant." But the broader ruling asserted that the speech was "intended to spark debate about issues," and was therefore protected speech.

I can appreciate the intent of the Circuit Court argument, and think that ultimately it's necessary to permit even the speech of nasty pieces of work like Phelps if we take free speech seriously.

That said, I do wonder if the idea that this speech serves the cause of debate is know...true. Discussion and debate are not really things that the Phelps clan care a whit about. They are opening an exchange, sure. But they aren't opening a discussion or a debate. Not really.

Let's say I start a conversation with the phrase: "You are a worthless piece of ****, and you and your mother****ing piece of **** dead child can just **** my ****." That's not an invitation to have a discussion or a debate. It's an invitation for you to give me a little closed-fist dental work. What Phelps is doing is simply that, with a slight gloss of "religion." It's just being abusive and nasty-truculent.

That's not to say that plenty of folks aren't under the misconception that being cruel and hostile somehow constitutes debate. Tens of thousands of internet trolls seem to think precisely that. But while disagreement can get intense even within the bounds of normal political discussion, there is a point we reach when it ceases to be part of the dynamic tension of democracy. It's just screaming and tearing and brokenness.

Ah well. Maintaining even the freedom of those who have no respect for others is necessary for freedom itself to be maintained.