A Win for the First Amendment

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to protest at the funerals of soldiers.  The “church”, which is really just the family of its founder Fred Phelps, somehow finds the resources to travel throughout the country wave ugly, hateful signs at the funerals of soldiers.  They believe that soldiers’ deaths are the vengeance of an angry god because the U.S. doesn’t put homosexuals to death.  They also find time to picket outside of high schools they find particularly sinful and accepting of homosexuality.

The case revolved around a funeral the “church” picketed in Maryland.  The soldier’s father sued and a jury in Baltimore awarded the father $11 million.  That figure was later cut in half by the judge and the ruling overturned by a three judge panel of the 4th circuit.  The ruling from the Supremes was nearly unanimous, with only Justice Alito in dissent.  Chief Justice Roberts noted “As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate….”.  Justice Alito, taking a seemingly narrower view, wrote “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

The Supreme Court is right.  This is speech that has to be protected.  The First Amendment doesn’t really protect the inoffensive speech or the speech that the majority of us agree with.  It ensures that we can’t shut someone out for speech that we don’t like, for speech that offends us.  It protects the Westboro Baptist “Church”, the KKK, anti-choice protesters, along with Code Pink, anti-war protesters, and the Union protesters in Wisconsin and Ohio.  It’s a beautiful thing, the First Amendment.

Compare this with our neighbors to the north.  Canada has a law in place that essentially bans broadcasters from lying on the air.  Broadcasters can not present “…false or misleading news…”  It’s a rule that is in conflict with a Canadian Supreme Court decision that found a person could not be charged with disseminating false information.  Prime Minister Harper and certain Members of Parliament were reportedly seeking to overturn the ban.  They were rebuffed by regulators.  People like Robert Kennedy, Jr hailed this decision and declared that this provision is why Canada is a bastion of democracy and the U.S. is a cesspool of political discourse.

Kennedy looks to President Reagan’s decision to overturn the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987 as the point in which modern American political news and discourse began to lose its soul.  It’s certainly true that without the requirement to present both sides of the argument conservative talk radio began to flourish in the 90’s and Americans began to gravitate to news and commentary that confirmed their personal beliefs.  The problem is, it’s not just conservatives who only flock to Fox, Townhall.com, and Rush Limbaugh.  Liberals do it to.  That’s MSNBC’s entire point.

The “Fairness Doctrine” is infantalizing.  It assumes that we can’t actually countenance competing ideas on our own – that we need to be shown a political belief and then it’s opposite.  It’s also pointless in the 21st century.  The same goes for the Canadian anti-lying provision.  People will get their news where they want.  News culture has changed.  Blogs break news and lead opinion.  There are thousands of ways to get a different angle on a story or to find out if a broadcaster or writer is lying.  This isn’t 1987 and intelligent humans don’t to have their hands held to ferret out “truth” in news.

Kennedy’s fantasy, which he published on the always even-handed Huffington Post, is that if we could only force conservative broadcasters to present an opposing viewpoint or not spin news to their advantage their audience would magically be enlightened.  People would stop listening to Rush or watching Glen Beck lose his mind.  Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter would lose their hypnotizing hold over their audience.   Our discourse would be elevated and we could have rational discussions.

The Westboro Baptist “Church” proves him wrong.  Our reaction to Westboro Baptist Church proves him wrong.  “God Hates Fags” is a big, bold lie on any number of levels.  They believe how Fred Phelps interprets the bible.  They’re allowed to spout their lies.  Broadcasters are allowed to scream that President Obama is illegitimate because he’s Kenyan.  Truthers are allowed to say that President Bush had something to do with the September 11th attacks.  We don’t need the “Fairness Doctrine” or an anti-lying provision to protect us.  We have google searches.  More importantly, we have the First Amendment.

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