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. 


20 Thoughts to “It’s a free country…or is it?”

  1. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    In certain parts of the country (Texas comes to mind), the good members of the Westboro Baptist Church are met by motorcycle gangs (the freedom riders). Apparently, the motorcycle gangs have fairly good luck keeping the WBC folks a good distance from the funeral (like, miles and miles away). Seems like a good solution to me. That way, the WBC folks can go before the supreme court (or any court) and talk about all the objects that are lodged in their behinds.

  2. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    Oh, I see your paragraph at the end…you got it!

  3. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    In fact, I can picture a big, hairy motorcycle dude explaining to a WBC protester “Hey, it’s a free country” while inserting a hot muffler up their butt.

  4. Tee hee. I have no problem with that. I was told that the DC group who now is the guardian for Arlington National Cemetery is Rolling Thunder. Not sure but whoever they are, good for them!

    Ordinarily, I don’t like to advocate violence. However, in the case of Westboro, I make an exception.

    I also hold more of a grudge at the AG for not joining the other states in their amicus AGAINST Westboro.
    Shame on Cuccinelli.

  5. Emma

    I think the larger issue here is whether free speech applies when it is directed at private individuals. It’s one thing to protest government or corporate actions, and to direct that protest at the particular agency or organization involved. It’s quite another thing to invade someone’s funeral, specifically because they are a soldier, and shout filth. That would seem to cross over to the level of harassment. I doubt one could stand very long on a sidewalk or street in front of someone’s house protesting their career choice or their sexual orientation.

    If you are free to say anything to anyone because “it’s a free country,” then women wouldn’t stand a chance against sexual harassment, and signs could go up relegating black people to the back of the bus or away from the water fountains. Those signs might not be legally enforceable, but hey, it’s free speech, right?

    I hope the Westboros go to at least the same kind of hell they imagine for everyone else but them.

  6. Totally agree Emma. Just out of curiosity, do they admit to directing it at the soldiers who are dead or do they equivocate and blur the distinction between them and the military in general?

    I think if Westboro prevails, we will lose a lot of safeguards like our laws about sexual harassment and anti bully measures that have been taken in schools.

    I would fully expect to see anything goes.

    If corporations can be treated as an individual, (reinforced by a recent supreme court ruling) then that makes things weaker also.

    This case makes me extremely nervous. I feel like what 99% of us know as decency is on the line. REgardless of our political differences, most of us agree on this one.

  7. DB

    And does free speech apply to individuals when one shows up at funerals of soldiers and blames the religion of their parents, and their current relationship (in the Synder case, Catholicism/divorced) as a reason for their child’s death? When Westboro accuses Catholic parents as raising their “children for the devil”, is this free speech? When they protest public school, and Christian school graduations and suggest to the students that their parents “raised you for the devil”, is this free speech?

  8. marinm

    A judgement against WBC would be dangerous to both liberty and freedom of speech. I don’t think you’ll find many people that’ll agree with WBC’s claims but it’s a double edged sword to claim that some speech can be protected and others not.

    Emma is spot on with the debate being more about freedom of speech when directed at a private individual versus a public one. The other hurdle of course is that the Constitution is a bar on government action not on citizens.

    Where I think MH is coming from is more akin to this http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-page-column-dupe,0,2024998.column which is to say that no one here would probably lose sleep if a WBC protestor got hit in the nose with a punch but I don’t think we want true harm to come to them (I could be wrong).

    To protect the rights for pro-lifers to advocate for life, to protect pro-choice to advocate for women’s choice, to even advocate for anti-gunners to spread their hate and misinformation… I must side with the 1A and protect them all.

  9. Bring back dueling. Remember, “fighting words” is still a valid defense, in some places, if you absolutely, positively, must reinforce your objection to hateful language with a righteous beat down….

  10. marinm

    …an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. I’m not totally against dueling.

    Does LA still allow it? I think it’s amusing that Article 114 is still on the books.

  11. Not me. I don’t care if harm comes to Westboro…either in the form of divine retribution or some other mishap.

    I have to ask why we even have libel and slander suits then. How can there ever be restrictions on anything. I am not a lawyer. However, I am very confused how we can limit some speech and not other speech.

    I don’t see how we can ever curtail the work of bullies if these ultimate bullies get to continue. I would give up some of my rights to see that they are stopped.

  12. fighting words is very difficult to defend also.

  13. So if you all were betting people….will Father Snyder or Westboro win?

  14. Wolverine

    I agree with Marinm. I personally detest the particular modus operandi and actions of the Westboro people and, apparently like everyone else here, wish they would cease and desist. It gives me great pause, however, to think that we might be amenable at some point to accepting certain arbitrary limitations on free speech beyond that which involves a demonstrable invasion of private property and privacy or which is adjudged to have incited directly violence against other persons or their property. Just whom would we appoint to be the contemporary final adjudicator on what is and what is not protected free speech? To whom would we give the power to decide what is and what is not “bullying”, “hate speech”, or “beyond the boundaries”? And, to use an old adage: “Who would watch the watchers?” To me this seems like a tremendous risk in letting a cat out of the bag which we might never be able to shove back in. Once those arbitrators finished with the Westboros, what would be there to stop them from looking at the blogs, for instance, and deciding…. well, you know what I mean. Jail time for transgressors? Book burnings? Arbitrary closing down of public outlets for private opinion? Be careful what emotion makes you wish for. The pointing finger may eventually turn toward yourself.

    I suggest that a society with genuine free speech can also develop a capacity to use free speech itself to informally condemn and cause an eventual disdappearance of those who seem to take the idea of free speech to disputable limits. We saw it at the coal mine disaster in West Virginia. We see it in the chopper guys who position themselves between the Westoboro people and their targets. We see individual cases brought before the courts to be argued on their facts and merits in the context of possibly conflicting constitutional rights. That ought to be enough to resolve the immediate issues without undermining the entire concept of free speech. It seems to me that, if we succeeded somehow in placing arbitrary limits on free speech, we would be undermining the very reasons why that lost and lamented young Marine from Massachusetts put on the uniform to begin with.

  15. Reaffirming them is just not a good thing. I would give up some of my own speech to shut them up. I fear the spill over to other areas if they are reaffirmed. Bullying, anything goes on TV at any time, anywhere, on kids shows etc.

    Speaking of, kids shows are already gross enough. You think that when kids watch cartoons that someone with some sense doesn’t pack them full of bathroom non-humor.

  16. Wolverine

    Moon, like me you probably remember the movie “Man for All Seasons.” Can you recall the scene when Sir Thomas More is on trial before the House of Lords on bogus charges brought by Henry VIII? King Henry got one of More’s subordinates, Richard Rich, to lie on the witness stand about More. Rich’s reward from the king was to be some juicy political and economic power in Wales. More knew all this. When Rich was leaving the witness stand, More confronted him. More stated that he, as a man, knew how men could be swayed by offers of wealth and power. His final words to Rich were; “But, Richard, for Wales?!!”

    Moon, you say you are willing to give up some of your own freedom of speech so that the Westboro’s can be shut up. Then, I have to ask: “But. Moon, you would give up some of your own precious freedom of speech for the silencing of the nothing Westboros?!!!”

  17. Not so much for the nothing Westboros and I do remember man for all seasons. I am mainly concerned over the other phoenixes that might arise from the ashes of this one. Once the Supremes decide that there are no limits, then we are in big trouble. That is why I am willing to give up some free speech.

  18. Wolverine

    Well, Moon, there we do differ. I am not about to give up an iota of my own free speech just to silence those people from Westboro. I figure this country has still got enough gut strength in it to take care of those “phoenixes” in our own special and unique ways whenever and wherever they arise — and still keep the Constitution totally intact. What I fear more is an imitation of the French, for instance, where, as I recall, insulting the President of France verbally or in print could result theoretically in an arrest and court date. (Well, it used to be that way. Not sure if it still is.) Nope. We’ve got a free speech machine here which was built by wise men and refined well over the subsequent three centuries. I for one am not inclined to mess with it, no matter what I think of the “other guys.”

  19. I wasn’t planning on altering the Constitution at all. There are just limits to free speech. The whole yelling fire thing. I want to put Westboro in that building and yell fire and tell them they can’t do that. And I don’t care about them. They are a scourge on society. I care about what else might be validated if they are validated.

    I don’t think our country is strengthened by some toads like the two who recorded Tyler Clementi being given the green light to continue their bullying. I don’t think we need someone on TV to challenge putting more filthy language on TV.

    There are limits. I would like to start with them. If we can’t even agree on what most of us agree is the most vile of all speech, then we don’t have much of a chance stopping other forms of speech. And at what point does it matter whether the speech is directed at individuals or government? That all seems lost, somehow.

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