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.

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1 Response

  1. Admiralspark says:

    Well then, I beg you answer me: if you choose to defend this man, why is it illegal for me to go out in public and say something insane like “I’m going to kill the President”? You know what happens when they hear you say that? You get hauled away by Secret Service agents because you “may pose a threat to the President”.

    The same logic that is used to defend Phelps in this article can be used to defend my right to go out in public and yell things like that: the logic that claims the First Amendment applies to everything, everywhere in this country.

    By this same logic, I can sit in class and sing Miley Cyrus in as loud a voice as I can and drown out the teacher, since it is apparently my Constitutional Right to do so. But, there’s a law prohibiting me from doing that, since it interferes with the education of my peers…but isn’t the Constitution (and through it, the Bill of Rights) absolute? Shouldn’t that law have no effect?

    Which brings me to my next point. At the top of the Constitution are these hallowed words:
    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    From that, we gain two interpretations of the purpose of the Constitution: “insure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general welfare”. Something like “insure domestic tranquility” should be cause enough to detain me should I feel the need to yell “I’M GONNA KILL THE PRESIDENT” since I’m sure many people would be afraid to go anywhere near me after that, and possibly they would run away screaming. Certainly not tranquil. By both “insure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general welfare”, bursting into song while in class is made a violation of the constitutional rights of others, since I’d be disturbing the peace and inhibiting my peers from gaining an education (‘general welfare’).

    So, back to the original subject. Fred Phelps, we can all agree, is disgusting. That soldier gave his life in a war he had no choice in joining, and it would be hard enough for the parents of the soldier to be at their son’s funeral. Now, Phelps comes over and makes a huge public disturbance, saying things like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. Of course the people gathered at the funeral are going to become even more upset! I must congratulate Snyder on being able to withstand not strangling Phelps–I know I wouldn’t be able to if I was in that situation. Phelp’s actions are more than out of line–they may as well be physical attacks against the family! The emotional stress and pain they are already subject to is multiplied tenfold by the disgusting protests of this man.

    I don’t know. Maybe my theories on how the country should be run are dated, but I don’t think I’d be too sad to find out that some freak accident occurred and Phelps was found dead. It’s true–people can say anything they want in this country. However, they have to deal with the other 300,000,000 people who live here as well–and that’s the ultimate form of justice.

    Just my $.02 worth at 1:30AM, take it or leave it.

    (By the way, if I ever break out in Miley Cyrus in class I expect my peers to seek vengeance through any means possible, because I would never willingly subject anyone to my singing, never mind to Miley Cyrus!)

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