Editorial: An unpleasant defense
By Andrew Sheeler
Fred Phelps may be one of the most evil human beings on the face of the Earth. The man and his family/church hold signs covered in hateful screeds while protesting the funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims alike. The man is utterly beneath contempt and his cause is almost completely indefensible.
I say almost for a reason and with great reluctance. It is my hope that I have established just how utterly I loathe Fred Phelps and everything he and his family stands for because I’m going to spend the rest of this editorial defending him.
For those who don’t keep up with Supreme Court news, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq has sued Fred Phelps. Phelps and his band of bigots held a protest outside the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in the line of duty. Phelps and his family held signs saying “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates fags” and “You’re going to hell.”
Albert Snyder, the father of the dead soldier, has claimed that the protest caused him great personal injury in the form of psychological damage that has since turned into physical damage. The senior Snyder won his case in trial court but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that verdict, leading Snyder to appeal to the Supreme Court.
There’s a whole host of support for Snyder’s efforts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) have both filed briefs in favor of Snyder’s argument. Kansas (Phelps’ home state) and 47 other states, including Alaska, have also filed briefs supporting Snyder. With so many powerful people backing Snyder’s case, how can Phelps win? Or better yet, why should he?
Because of a little thing called the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That’s why the ACLU has come to the defense of Phelps. “Fine,” you say, “the ACLU defends everybody. So what?” But the ACLU is not alone. The editorial boards of the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have all spoken up in defense of Phelps, or rather his right to protest. The Baltimore Sun put it well when they wrote, “[t]he First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech would be meaningless if it didn’t protect the most unpopular and offensive forms of expression.”
And that’s the rub. That’s why the Supreme Court must rule in favor of Phelps. Because he’s got a right to protest, a right to spew the most reprehensible bile you can imagine so long as it’s peaceable. Which it is. It doesn’t matter how offensive you find Fred Phelps. It doesn’t matter that what he does is morally wrong, that his words can inflict such damage as they do. Fred Phelps is the reason why we have the First Amendment. If it can cover someone like Phelps, then it can cover every other American citizen, too.
I fear the Supreme Court justices will take the easy way out. The popular way out. The way out that Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and 48 separate states want. I worry the justices will do what is popular, instead of what is just. I worry what will happen to journalism, to free speech in this country, if the Supreme Court makes the wrong choice.