Taking “Free Speech” to a Dangerous Extreme

In Canada, a citizen’s right to free speech does not include inciting harm to others or describing them in hateful terms. The Criminal Code prohibits “hate propaganda.” And the Canadian Human Rights Act forbids the posting of hateful or contemptuous messages on the Internet.

No such legislation exists in the United States. And, judging from a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, it never will. It would violate the Constitution, according to the court.

It seems to me that the U.S. Supreme Court is taking an extreme – and dangerous – position.

Here’s what the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.

In its broadest interpretation, that would permit libel, slander and threats. But the U.S. has laws against all three. Earlier justices have used their common sense – and British common law, from which U.S. law evolved – to protect individuals from this kind of damaging “speech.”

But today’s justices are a different lot.  It seems to me that common sense is not their strong suit.

The latest example of this is their ruling that overturned a judgment against the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family, who basically constitute the congregation of “the Westboro Baptist Church.”

You remember the Westboro Baptist Church, don’t you?

That’s the group from Topeka, Kansas  that pickets military funerals, claiming that God takes the lives of U.S. soldiers as retribution for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.  The signs include “God Hates You,” “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Solderis,” and other offensive declarations (see photo above).

The case involved Matthew Snyder, a Marine lance-corporal who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Members of the  Westboro Baptist Church staged a protest outside the Westminster, Maryland church where his funeral was to be held. The dead Marine’s father, Albert Snyder, sued and won an $11 million award for the emotional distress he had suffered.

The award was reduced on appeal to $5 million. But the Phelps family appealed again, and the Supreme Court threw out the judgment.

Chief Justice John Roberts said free speech rights in the First Amendment shield the funeral protesters.

The only dissenting justice was Samuel Alito who declared:

Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.

Free and open debate. That’s what the First Amendment was obviously designed to protect. Surely, no one with any sense thinks the Founding Fathers wanted to give the Phelps family permission to wave horrible signs at the grieving family of a fallen Marine?

And surely, free and open debate does not include the kind of scurrilous hate speech directed at the President of the United States, Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, Dr. George Tiller and so many others?

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com

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