An Ironically Proud Day to Be an American

Initially posted at Independent Country on March 2:


These are my initial reactions to the Westboro decision. I haven't studied the reach or all the implications of the Court's ruling.


Today, I am ironically proud to be an American. I am celebrating because the Bad Guys won.

The Bad Guys, of course, are from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS. This fringe cult is a unique Church indeed . . .
  • Its hatred of gays shocks even the Christian Right
  • Its anti-patriotism shocks even the Left
Nearly everyone who's ever heard of this church is appalled by what it does.

Its members celebrate the death of U.S. servicemen who died in our overseas wars. They believe this is a sign that God is punishing the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality.

They go around the country and stage "protests" near the funerals of fallen soldiers, coming as close as local laws allow.

Their presence inflicts deep emotional pain on the families and friends of the dead.

In fact, one father sued them for inflicting emotional distress. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which defended Westboro's free speech rights 8-1, with only Justice Alito dissenting.

Although I'm not a lawyer and have not studied the jurisdictional issues and other nuances of the case, I have breathed a sigh of relief.

And NOT because I agree with Westboro. Far from it. I believe that what goes on between consenting adults in their own homes is nobody else's business.

Furthermore, I disagree with the U.S. occupations in both Afghanistan and Iraq (and virtually everywhere else in the world), which makes deaths resulting from those occupations a cause for more sadness, not gloating.

The reason I breathe a sigh of relief is that the Supreme Court still took the side of the most unpopular defendant imaginable. Just as it did two decades ago in two different flag desecration cases. Just as it did three decades ago when it allowed the Ku Klux Klan to march in heavily-Jewish Skokie, IL.

The difference between then and now is the gradual changes in our culture. Although the term "politically incorrect" has been so over-used as to become a cliche, there is a real phenomenon behind it: over the past two decades, speech codes on college campuses have had a chilling effect. Any statement or gesture that can be interpreted as "offensive" or even just "insensitive" can land a faculty member or student before a campus tribunal.

That Political Correctness persists on college campuses is shameful.

It would have been even worse for the Supreme Court to make "political correctness" the law of the land . . . :

  • If the Supreme Court had barred the Klan march in Skokie that would have opened the door to banning other unpopular views in other places.
  • If the Supreme Court allowed for Flag desecration to be criminalized, that could have opened the door for government to protect other national or local symbols from "desecration"
  • And then governments would have sought to censor other activities that it deems too "offensive"

The people, especially those who hold unpopular beliefs, would have been in a position of legal uncertainty -- unsure if their forms of expression would be tolerated at all. If they weren't censored directly, they might have censored themselves to avoid trouble.

And the public would have been the worse off for it. Just because a belief is unpopular doesn't mean it isn't true -- and if it's not wholly true, at least it may provide insights that broaden public understanding.

The Westboro case may make the issue more stark. The issue wasn't whether the government would prosecute for offensive speech, but whether another private party can sue for "emotional distress" caused by speech.

This would have been EVEN MORE chilling to ALL speech. Consider . . .

Perhaps you march without a permit, or "desecrate" a national symbol, and you get charged for a misdemeanor. Although it's not right, you might be able to handle it, and take pride in your civil disodience.

But what if what you say or do is tolerated by the authorities, but subject to an $11 million lawsuit if it "offends" someone else.

Now THAT'S a chilling effect!
  • Imagine you are an editor of a newspaper, and your editorial cartoonist draws the image of a sacred religious figure in a derogatory light; should offended readers who are members of that religion get to sue you and the cartoonist?
  • Imagine you want to build a religious center on private property, but other people in your neighborhood blame members of this religion for a recent tragedy in the neighborhood; should they be able to sue to keep you from building this center on your own property?
  • Imagine you hold the "traditional view" on sexual morality and express your feelings in a public forum; should someone who is offended by your remarks get to sue you?
  • Or imagine you criticize the "traditional view" on sexuality through mockery, satire, and shocking images; should people offended by your presentation get to sue you?

Thanks to today's decision, it looks like freedom of speech is pretty safe. The Supreme Court upheld the rights of a group reviled by ALL sides. When the question is asked, "Where is the line drawn on freedom of speech," the answer is, "So far away that even Westboro is safe, and if Westboro is safe, YOU have nothing to worry about."

Most courts in the English-speaking world and of Europe would not have upheld freedom of speech in this case. Indeed, in several countries some degree of Political Correctness is the law of the land, where it is even illegal to promote certain conspiracy theories.

To a large degree, however, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly still remains safe in America. I haven't felt this proud and lucky to be an American in a long time.