As a long-time writer, newbie blogger and committed political activist, I have a very personal relationship with the First Amendment.
Without a fiercely protected freedom to speak, I doubt if I could write a word in this blog, let alone string together even one of my favorite subversive sentences attacking our very own King George.
Yet, aren’t there times when all of us should be willing to just shut up?
There’s the famous example of the importance of silence cited by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in 1919. He noted that it isn’t permissible to cause a panic by “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Abridging free speech was appropriate in a case like that, he said, because it presented a “clear and present danger”
That decision was later overturned in a case where the Supreme Court said speech could only be banned when it was directed to particular people and likely to incite imminent lawless action.
All of which brings us, of course, to the Rev. Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church and their obsession with picketing funerals. Years ago few folks noticed when Phelps confined the attacks of his kin – and his church of 75 is made up largely of relatives -- to picketing the funerals of the victims of gay bashings and AIDS. A few laws, such as one in Kansas, were passed to put minimal limits on such actions.
Now, though, Phelps has moved on to picket the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. The “rationale,” such as it is, argues that the United States coddles its lesbian and gay citizens and is, therefore, being punished by an angry God.
As one of the allegedly coddled lesbians, I could argue at length about how living in a country in which my family doesn’t have a single legal right isn’t terribly comfy. But that’s a topic for another time.
What’s important now is this question: As a society, what do we do about people so lacking in common decency that they seek to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the most vulnerable people?
Fourteen states, including Kansas, are considering laws to either limit picketing at funerals for the first time, or to impose additional limits.
Today word came from the Kansas Statehouse that one current bill, which would create a buffer zone around a funeral, may not stand up to a Supreme Court challenge. Stephen McAllister, a professor of constitutional law and former dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, told a legislative committee that "the court is very wary" of buffer zones.
I don’t claim to be a legal expert. Despite my constant blathering in this blog, I can’t even say for certain what’s best for the United States. But can’t there be a point where we can simply say “enough is enough?”
I have lost someone I loved dearly. I can report that to simply survive the funeral, to even remain standing in such circumstances, is a supreme act of will. I can’t imagine what it would have cost me, or my son who was only 7 then, to bury my spouse in front of a background of taunting chants and obscene signs.
Can we not decide that there are moments when we should all be quiet?
Phelps is not a young man. There will soon come a time when he leaves this Earth just like all of us will. I have to admit that in contemplating his demise I had a brief thought that, perhaps, it would be poetic justice for all the people he’s picketed to converge on his funeral.
But I don’t even want to argue for that. Because all of us, even people like Phelps and his family, deserve to be treated decently. Even for him there are times when we should all be quiet.
[revised slightly from original post on Feb. 15, 2006]