Paul Greenberg

"... if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

--Oliver Wendell Holmes

The words Chief Justice John Roberts just used in Snyder v. Phelps will surely find their way into the law books. For he was defending the very essence of freedom of speech, which is freedom not for the ideas we approve of -- they're in no danger of being suppressed -- but freedom for the ideas we loathe. They're the ones people want to censor.

The chief justice was defending the right of a little group of fanatics out of Topeka, Kan., who tour the country picketing military funerals and collecting headlines. Funerals like the one for Lance Corp. Matthew Snyder, USMC, whose father sued the group/family/sect that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church for the emotional damages they'd inflicted.

The picketers showed up at the young marine's last rites with their usual, hateful signs: "God Hates Fags," "America is Doomed," that kind of thing. Their signs said much the same thing last time I'd spotted them here in Little Rock. Nice people.

"Speech is powerful," the chief justice acknowledged. "It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain." But under the First Amendment, he added, "we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker." For the American system protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

So long as the protesters acted peacefully and lawfully (they were required to keep a decent distance from the gravesite), the court would not prevent them from voicing their views, however loathsome.

The chief justice's opinion was shared by almost every other member of the high court. The 8-to-1 ruling (only Associate Justice Samuel Alito dissented) will doubtless go down in the books alongside Oliver Wendell Holmes' warning that "we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe." Or as another eloquent American jurist, Learned Hand, once put it: "Right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be folly; but we have staked upon it our all."

Matthew Snyder, 20, would give his all in defense of our freedoms. The best response to those who picketed his funeral is not to gag them but to ignore them. For there are certain actions that fall beneath contempt. They don't deserve attention, let alone suppression.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.