When I was a kid, one of the best of all come-backs was to say ‘Well, it’s a free country.’ It sounds sort of wimpy now but it carried some clout as a kid to utter those words, at least in kid-dom. It packed some clout if for no other reason, there really was no good come back. It also made it incumbent upon the challenger to stop you from whatever it was you were doing. Most people didn’t want to elevate the issue to the physical level. Playground 101.
Reading the New York Times, In Topeka, the Price of Free Speech made me think of this taunt many decades later. It’s a free country. The Phelps family aka Westboro Baptist Church, of military funeral harassment fame, are pushing this free country crap to a new limit. The Phelps, who comprise most of Westboro Baptist Church, have a home base in Topeka, Kansas. They invade parks, cities, burial grounds, etc with their horrible message that God is doling out his wrath because America somehow accepts homosexuality. Their favorite target is military funerals. The mayor of Topeka, William W. Bunten, has a few remarks on the subject of this unholy alliance of right wing extremists:
“They believe free speech tops everything,” said Mayor William W. Bunten, sitting at his desk in City Hall last week. “We do with some exceptions, and one of them would be taking signs and standing outside a funeral home and associating someone’s death with God’s hate for homosexuality. I believe it should be banned. I see it as bullying.”
Topeka is obviously embarrassed by its most famous residents. Everyone, from the governor on down has something to say about the Phelps and their twisted, perverted version of free speech:
Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, said, “As hard as it is for me to call for a restriction on free speech, this behavior in my mind is so unacceptable that something must be done.”
The city has tried and failed for decades to rid itself of the Phelpses, or at the very least to quiet them a bit. There have been counterprotests, violent attacks and endless rounds of legal efforts trying to silence them or force them out. But much to the embarrassment of the conflict-averse residents of this capital city of about 125,000, Mr. Phelps remains perhaps Topeka’s most famous resident.
“They would shut down free speech if they could — they don’t have any interest in free speech,” said Rachel Hockenbarger, 44, one of Mr. Phelps’s many children, who is a lawyer. “We are the ones fighting these battles on a daily basis.”
11 of the 13 Phelps kids are attorneys, and fairly good ones, according to some local residents who have used them professionally. 3 of the Phelps daughters argued their case before the Supreme Court last week. Most people are horrified that this kind of disrespect is allowed to continue and and they see it as pushing the envelope outside the boundaries of what free speech is all about.
What happens if the Phelps win? They get to continue their abuse but this case has further implications. Much has been said and done regarding bullying in recent years, on the internet, using electronic devices, and the old fashioned way, face to face. What will become of all the restrictions society is trying to put on bulling? Do bullies now get a free rein under the guise of free speech? Can young people be literally tortured to death by their peers?
Will bullies suddenly get an injection of steroids and be more prevalent than ever? Will schools no longer be able to try to control bullying? Young people seem to be the biggest victims of bullying since they have less control of their whereabouts because they are kids. They are stuck in their schools. With bullying now going electronic, even going home at the end of the day will no longer be a refuge.
As obnoxious and odious as the Phelps family is, as much of a pariah as they have become, they might be the least of the problem. In evaluating their behavior as a standard, we stand to loose a lot more. If their behavior is upheld as Constitutional, then we may just be unleashing the free speech hounds of hell.
Meanwhile, hats off to Rolling Thunder and other motorcycle groups who act as the guardians for our fallen military heroes. They form their own posses to shut out the vile sound of the Phelps at funerals. They provide a visual block as well as a sound barrier. Free speech, you know.