In America, it's easy to take freedom speech for granted. After all, for citizens of the United States, free speech is a birthright, an ideal deeply woven into the fabric of society and culture. Sometimes, however, our ideals come into conflict with reality, and our convictions are put to the test. When a cherished liberty is exploited for a dubious purpose, do the perpetrators of that exploitation retain the right to exercise that liberty, or should the right be circumscribed "for the greater good?"
The US Supreme Court answered this question last week with its ruling that the anti-military, anti-gay protest activities of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. This was not welcome news for those who believe that something should be done to protect grieving families of fallen soldiers from the vitriol of a lunatic "pastor" and his overzealous followers. As disgusting and offensive as WBC's conduct is, however, the general consensus among legal experts and pundits on the Left and Right is that the Supreme Court made the right decision. Chief Justice John Roberts took pains to articulate why the Court came down on the side of the protestors in this case:
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues are absolutely correct here. The blessings of living in a free society come with the unavoidable consequences of that freedom: inevitably, misguided – and sometimes evil – people will use that freedom to spew hateful, hurtful speech. Yet, as much as we may wish to use the force of law to impose civility on public discourse, it is not the government's job to police the thoughts and words of its citizens.