Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Responsible Speech

Last Sunday I wrote a post titled Caution: Engage Brain Before Opening Mouth, in which I lamented the abuse of the right of free speech and its relationship to some of the dreadful crimes and abuses we see in the world around us. If you haven't read that post, you might want to go back and read it now. I'll wait a few minutes while you do.

Finished? Okay, now take a look at this news story posted on CNN yesterday: Justices to Hear Case Over Protests at Military Funerals. The case, which is already being viewed as a potential landmark case that seeks to balance freedoms of religion, speech, and privacy, deals with the actions of a small Kansas church congregation which protests loudly at the funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They contend that God is punishing the United States for "the sin of homosexuality" by allowing soldiers to be killed, and they travel around the country, shouting at grieving family members at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for Maimed Soldiers" and "God Blew Up the Troops." Here's an example:

The problem with freedom of speech (if I can call it that) is that it protects even the most heinous and despicable of messages. My personal opinion is that those who would intrude on the grief of families who have suffered the loss of a loved one are heartless, morally bankrupt, and deserving of condemnation by decent human beings everywhere.

But their speech is protected by the Constitution, even as is my freedom to condemn their callous behavior.

The real problem with rights and freedoms is that we have separated them from responsibilities. Many people in America today are quick to complain about infringement of their rights, but never consider the possibility that they might be acting irresponsibly. Those who demonstrate and file lawsuits on behalf of unrestricted gun ownership never mention that not everyone exercising his or her right to bear arms will do so responsibly...that's why we seldom go a week without reading of someone going on a killing spree with guns (which have, almost invariably, been legally purchased). Those who insist on unrestricted freedom of speech never seem to worry about the harm their speech might cause others, but are quick to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if they think their rights are being infringed.

Freedom is good. Freedom coupled with responsible behavior is better.

Unfortunately, shouting about freedom is much easier than behaving responsibly.

I have a dream that this case will make it to the Supreme Court, and that nine justices will glower down from the bench and give these despicable people a lesson in civic behavior and common decency.

But I think, somehow, I'll win the lottery first.

Have a good day. Enjoy your freedom of speech responsibly.

More thoughts tomorrow.



Gilahi said...

These are the same people that would yell "movie!" in a crowded firehouse.

Wv: pation - a positively or negatively charged piece of butter.

Bandit said...

More religious fanatics.I think that these folks believe that they are correct but what is their purpose? What are they accomplishing by preying on grieving families of fallen soldiers? This is much more than irresponsibility. the Bible says "judge not lest ye be judged by others." These folks have made themselves judge and jury and have chosen the worst of all forums to get their message out.

Anonymous said...

In an interesting wrinkle to this story, motorcycle "groups" associated with POW/MIA issue have taken to guarding military funerals, at which the jerks might appar. The motorcycle patriots basically intimidate the nutcases into keeping their distance. 200 beefy bar-fighting guys on Harleys sporting Wehrmacht-style helmets have a tendency to frighten away even the legally insane. Some states have even sent a few state policemen to establish a distance requirement 100-300 yards, which helps shield the family. I would much rather that the Honor Guard at each funeral use live ammo instead of blanks, and settle the issue once and for all, but that would probably make me an extremist. I suppose that's why the head wingnut on this issue always brings his pitiable children along.

Here's the weird part: From a constitutional standpoint, the bad guys could win on this, and it would help protect the freedom to speak of other unpopular, but not as obnoxious groups. Let us imagine that the government decides that "Tea Party" protestors are highly offensive to left wingnuts, and Tea Parties should be banned. It's a prescription for the end of the First Amendment as we know it. A very similar case was actually decided wisely once before, with the decision that freedom stops when the expression in question is equivalent to falsely yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. (Schenk vs. United States, 1919, Mr. Justice Holmes for the majority.) I hope the court will amplify that precedent, citing the presence of the motorcycle "groups" and the threat to the public safety of innocents caused by the obnoxious behavior of the protestors. The end result would be that it would remain perfectly legal for the wingnuts in question to march up and down the steps of the US Capitol with their idiotic "God blows up innnocent heroes because homosexuals are not executed in the USA!" signs with impunity--they just won't be allowed to do it at a funerall within reach of the angry former Marine father of 21 year old female soldier blown to smithereens in Afghanistan. This would define the difference between shouting, "Fire!" in a theater, and shouting "Fire!" at a bonfire. The latter can't hurt anybody, but the former can lead to a deadly panic and riot. Such a decision would preserve my freedom to be a right wingnut, if I am so inclined. Which I am.

Eminence Grise.

Anonymous said...

Note bene: Holmes decision was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which defined the offense downward. In practice, unless the speech wound up with, "Let's grab guns and overthrow the government right now!" the speech was protected. One must assume the Supreme Court accepted the current case in order to move the pendulum away from Brandenburg v. Ohio more toward Holmes' view. Brandenburg v. Ohio invalidated most state laws against seditious meetings, even those that didn't result in imminent action.

In view of current terrorist activity, the court may have taken this case in order to approve a standard that would confirm prosecution for specific discussion of criminal acts, absent of action. Otherwise, many criminal conspiracy laws under which terrorists may be prosecuted for planning violent acts might be successfully challenged. That would make trials for Gitmo prisoners a very bad idea--the courts would have to turn loose verifiable enemies of the state. As Mr. Justice Goldberg famously said, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."

Eminence Grise

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I saw this on either the Today Show or Good Morning America today. It kind of freaked me out that anyone would protest at a soldier's funeral. Its things like that, that make me feel like the human race is doomed, not just America.

Mike said...

Here's the group that does all this crazy stuff.


Since they're are close to St. Louis we used to get them a lot at Jefferson Barracks National cemetery. Until the motorcycle groups started showing up.

What's really amazing is that in one area (Kansas) so many like minded nuts can congregate in one place. But Jim Jones got 900 people to follow him into the jungle and drink poison.

So you never know what kind of human cancer will spring up in any one place. I'll bet when the old fart that leads this group dies the group will self destruct over a period of time.

Wv: midizit - A belly button pimple.