I’m a free speech extremist. I believe the government has absolutely no business regulating or censoring speech. Of course, commercially popular speech doesn’t need protection. It’s only unpopular—racist, sexist and vulgar—speech that requires it. So as a free speech extremist, ironically, I often find myself on the same side as those I believe to be abhorrent, disgusting human beings.
Like the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. When their charismatic leader, Fred Phelps, was alive (may his gentle soul rest in peace) he referred to me personally as a filthy whore after I lumped him in with things which make Christianity look bad (him and the Inquisition, just to name a few). His cult of Protestant fanatics is odious and gross; their practice of picketing soldiers’ funerals, victims of violence and gay pride events is opportunistic, ghoulish and grotesque. They’re publicity hounds who put themselves in the public eye in hopes of furthering their cause of 19th century vintage bigotry. The best thing I can say about them is they’re cynical. The worst thing I can say is they’re Christian.
But I don’t think the government should shut them up. Nor does the Supreme Court. In 2011, in an 8-1 decision siding with Phelps and his minions, the Court said they had a right to display their small-minded grampa-mixing-his-meds-with-absinthe drivel on public sidewalks. And yes, near the burial sites for America’s war dead.
Why should we protect putrid language? Why is this basic freedom important? Because whomever decides what speech is hateful or distasteful, ultimately becomes the arbiter of our discourse. Then we’re all at the mercy of ever-morphing taboos, mores and, yes, political correctness.
And just for clarity’s sake: The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee immunity from the repercussions of speech. Your boss firing you for tweeting something off-color doesn’t make you a First Amendment martyr—it makes you unemployed. Also, my telling you to shut up isn’t infringing on your freedoms. My telling you to shut up is also my right. It’s the government telling you to shut up that’s infringing on your freedoms.
The most important thing in the public sphere, in this arena of ideas and debate—is to defend speech you don’t agree with. Otherwise you’re not actually for free speech; you’re just for your speech.
This week the obscure governor in one of the poorest, fattest, least educated, most miserable, worst quality of life states who (of course) thinks he should be president, Louisiana’s executive Bobby Jindal, threatened to arrest Westboro Baptist picketers who hinted they’d hold rallies at the funerals of victims of yet another one of the country’s mass shootings. “If they come here to Louisiana, if they try to disrupt this funeral, we’re going to lock them up,” Jindal said Sunday on CBS. “We’re going to arrest them. They shouldn’t try that in Louisiana. We won’t abide by that here. Let these families grieve.”
Jindal issued an executive order curbing the rights to practice the sincerely held beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church, even though existing Louisiana law protects mourners with a 300-500 feet buffer from protests.
This is the same man who recently signed a different executive order protecting the religious freedom of those who oppose gay marriage. “We don’t support discrimination in Louisiana and we do support religious liberty,” said the governor. On birth control, Jindal is also on the side of the religious. He wrote in a WSJ op-ed, “Anyone who has a religious objection to contraception should not be forced by government health-care edicts to purchase it for others.”
Sure, governor, you’re all for religious freedom you agree with. That’s not freedom. That’s selective religious intolerance. That’s cherry-picking which faiths you support and which faiths you want to see in jail.
Throughout this wholly insincere debate over religious freedoms versus gay rights and women’s reproductive health, Bobby “Hey Guys, Look at Me!!” Jindal has said he’s on the side of believers. But the first time he’s confronted with believers whom he finds offensive, he threatens to go full Kim Jong-un on them.
Trying to shutter speech with government action is unconstitutional, unconscionable and un-freaking-American. It’s also totally unforgivable.
Freedom isn’t only about making birth control less available or denouncing homosexuals. Freedom is also the right to be offensive, ignorant and stupid—and Governor Jindal is exercising that right flawlessly.
Photo by Marc Nozell