Court's First Amendment views are variable

October 11, 2011

I sympathize with letter writer Arthur Lapenotiere ("In Westboro Baptist case, court upheld the law," Oct. 10), who wrote this in defense of the Supreme Court's ruling, quoting from Justice William J. Brennan, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive." Oh, what a noble sentiment. If only it were true.

Think back to another recent ruling that involved the same principle, Morse v. Frederick (and the infamous "Bong hits for Jesus" sign). In that case, a high school student unfurled a banner critical of prohibition — albeit in a rather juvenile and offensive way — and was suspended from school by the principal. In that case, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to reaffirm the First Amendment right of an American citizen to protest a government policy that he felt was immoral, but instead the court sided against free speech, in effect saying the First Amendment doesn't apply because they find the idea itself offensive. This is the absolute embodiment of hypocrisy. The Supreme Court's reason? The school's "compelling interest" in restricting drug use trumped the First Amendment.

How is the school's "compelling interest" more important than the Snyder family's "compelling interest" to bury their son, a true American hero, without being harassed by a bunch of mentally unbalanced protesters? The court also ruled that "Bong hits for Jesus" was not political speech in the strictest sense, because it merely "promoted drug use" rather than specifically protested the government policy of prohibition explicitly. But how is people waving signs like "thank God for dead soldiers" more clearly political? What was their message again — that America was being punished for tolerating gay people? They don't say that specifically. In fact, the signs waved by the Westboro Baptist Church are farther off their own message than the sign waved by Joseph Frederick, and more offensive to boot. Yet the court ruled in their favor.

I guess this simply illustrates another similarity between the government's current form of prohibition and the one that failed back in the 1920s. Back then, the government, the police, and the courts trampled on the Constitution, fostering disrespect for authority and undermining core American values. The only difference is that this time, prohibition has gone on for so long (since 1937) that hardly anyone is left who remembers what it was like before the government took away our freedom to lead our own lives as we see fit.

William Smith, Baltimore

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