Free speech is a tricky thing.
We, as a society, will fight to the death – literally – to protect someone’s right to say something, even when it may not be the most popular thing.
The real trick, as conventional wisdom goes, is when the speech is something that society views as abhorrent. It is when the spoken or written words spawn feelings of anger, hate or disgust the notion of “free speech” is tested.
Such is the case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is deciding whether a disgusting, narrow-minded pastor leading an anti-gay Kansas-based religious group has a right to picket military funerals with signs that read, among other sick slogans, “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The pastor’s supporters, which include many media outlets and civil rights organizations, argue the nutty pastor and his wacky church is exercising its right to free speech. Supporters of the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder say the church and its pastor are invading the privacy of his surviving relatives.
As the head of a media news outlet, it would be too easy to say this is a cut-and-dry case. We in the media are quick to say that free speech is absolute and that short of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, we have to live with the type of speech that makes us uncomfortable or, in some cases, hurts us to the core.
But it’s not that simple and the answer is not that easy.
I have heard interviews with Albert Snyder, the father of the fallen Marine, and the pain in his voice is real. He is someone who has been hurt by what has been done to him and his son’s memory. It has been years since Matthew Snyder died, but the pain in his father’s voice is fresh, as if he can still see the signs that praised his son’s killing in Iraq and how God was punishing the nation for its tolerance of homosexuality.
“All we wanted to do was bury Matt in a decent, civilized way,” an emotional Snyder told reporters on the footsteps of the court after the hearing. “But Phelps’ conduct was so extreme; it’s beyond the bounds of basic human decency.”
Fred Phelps has been in the Inland Empire in the past, bringing his ugly brand of free speech to a funeral here years ago.
It’s only free when no one is hurt and there is no challenge.
We’ve had lots of examples of free speech controversies in Southwest Riverside County, like when a group of people stood outside the meeting place of a Temecula Muslim group chanting some pretty ugly things because they didn’t like the thought of a planned mosque. There was also the decision to remove a painting from a city-operated gallery in Temecula because the piece was considered objectionable to some.
In Menifee, some parents objected to some material in a school dictionary that was eventually removed from the classroom.
It’s hard, this free-speech thing. I’m torn because on one hand I encourage debate and discussion, because that is how we learn from each other. On the other hand, the things that are said can hurt, sometimes deeply. Do we raise the level of debate over illegal immigration by calling someone a “wetback” or help the discussion about Muslims by referring to those who follow that religion as “terrorists.”
Of course the answer is no. The last thing we should do is make it harder for those with whom we disagree with to say stupid things.
First Amendment advocates, including top media outlets, are watching the Snyder case closely, fearing that a negative ruling would clamp down on free expression. The Washington Post wrote in an editorial: “If Westboro’s vitriol is deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection and a private citizen can sue to silence the church — or shut it down — then everyone’s rights will be eroded.”
It’s so important to protect free speech, almost at any cost. It’s easy to say in a vacuum, when the stories and people are far away.
It’s harder when you have to see the faces of those hurt by free speech. That is when we learn the lesson that free speech is, indeed, not really free.
Jose Arballo Jr. is publisher of Southwest Riverside News Network and can be reached at 951-375-2072 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org