Free speech is paramount

Our view: Everyone has a right to express their views, even when they're deplorable

March 13, 2010

More than 30 years ago, a young Jewish lawyer named David Goldberger defended the rights of American Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Ill., home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. Although he hated everything the Nazis stood for and knew that such a demonstration would cause great mental anguish to many of his fellow Jews, Mr. Goldberger - then an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union - felt that a larger principle was at stake. Under the U.S. Constitution, the Nazis had a right not only to hold their vile views but also to express them publicly.

Mr. Goldberger was right. The Supreme Court has found, correctly, that a commitment to the values of the First Amendment requires the protection of speech that is unpleasant, hateful, cruel - even potentially violent at times.

That leads us to the case pitting Fred Phelps, leader of a tiny, fanatically anti-gay Kansas church, against Albert Snyder, a Westminster man whose Marine son, Matthew, was killed in Iraq in March 2006. Mr. Phelps claims that the deaths of U.S. soldiers overseas are a sign that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality. He and a small contingent of followers have held protests near service members' funerals around the country. They picketed outside Matthew's funeral with signs reading "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers."

A federal jury in Baltimore awarded Mr. Snyder millions of dollars for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. An appeals court threw out the award on First Amendment grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case this fall.

Our hearts go out to the Snyder family for all that they have endured. It must have been painful beyond imagining to go through the double anguish of first losing a beloved son and then having his solemn memorial ceremony tarnished by outsiders pushing a bizarre political/theological agenda.

But if the right to free expression is to have real meaning, it cannot be circumscribed on the grounds that such speech is hurtful or offensive. The fact is, Mr. Phelps and his band of fanatics followed the law. They stood on a public street and spoke their minds. No civilized person can like what they said or did - but if our society is to remain civilized, their activities must be allowed. We hope the Supreme Court will agree.

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