The Thought We Hate

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 16, 2011 12:01 AM
The Thought We Hate

"... 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.

Some ideas should be suffocated with silence rather than given the compliment of censorship. Attempts to outlaw them only give those who express them the notoriety they seek. And which these pests attracted as this sad case made its way to the highest court in the land.

Many years ago, I was privileged to know knew a forceful lady of mature years from Virginia. She was from a time when the word Lady was not used interchangeably with Woman. You could tell when she was about because of those distinctive Virginia vowels, which she never lost despite her years in Arkansas. And because her voice carried so. Having grown quite deaf, she had no idea how loud she sounded.

Once I was so bold as to bring up her handicap and express my admiration for how well -- even defiantly -- she had overcome it, for deafness can be the most socially isolating of handicaps. Yet she was the most sociable of ladies. How, I asked her, had she managed that? She just looked at me astounded, even indignant, that I should be so naive, so ignorant, of one of the most important lessons of life and manners. "Why," she replied, "you just rise above it."

Which is just the way a free and civilized society should react to hateful little publicity-seekers who go to and fro in the land trying to outrage us, and all too often succeed. Why give them the satisfaction? Why yield to their provocations? And wind up sacrificing a basic principle like freedom of speech in order to gag them, They're not worth it.

There are many ways to abuse freedom of speech -- and of the press, I hasten to add -- for there is no liberty without license. But in our rage to punish those who abuse their freedoms, we may destroy freedom itself. To cite Learned Hand again, the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.

It is not the flamboyant shouters, the rhetorical exhibitionists, who are the great threat to liberty; they can be seen through easily enough. It is the rest of us, who would compromise an essential freedom in order to punish just a few little pissant protesters. They're an irritation, not a danger. It is we, the great majority, the ones with the power to silence others by force of law, who are the dangerous ones.