Monday 23 October 2017
Within the debate on Marriage Equality there exists this silly assumption that everyone will lose their right to free speech. I wrote the following article back in 2013. It shows how people can be effected by the excesses of too much free speech.
Most Australians would never have heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. It is a church of hate that is anti almost everything socially progressive. However it saves its most vitriolic and vile hatred for gay people, Catholics and Jews.
On a regular basis they picket the funerals of gay service men. Although they don’t limit themselves to gays.
In fact, WBC members say “God’s hatred is one of His holy attributes” and that they’re picketing is a form of preaching to a “doomed” country unable to hear their message in any other way.
“We will never truly understand the effect Free Speech has on an individual until we have suffered from the abuse of it.”
In 2011 they picketed the funeral of Matthew Synder with placards like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men. The fact that Matthew was not gay was irrelevant because the churches founder and homophobic Pastor Phelps (he died in 2014) believed that God was killing American soldiers as punishment for the nation’s sinful policies.
Now Matthews father Albert took exception to this malevolent behaviour by a Christian Church. After all he was suffering the realisation that is every parents nightmare: The death of a loved child. And the personal grief must have been an ordeal in itself, let alone the added agony that these protests evoked.
So he sued Phelps and the church for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.The federal appeals court in Richmond, threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability. The Supreme Court agreed saying that Quote “a grieving father’s pain over mocking protests at his Marine son’s funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech” All but one justice (8 to 1) sided with the fundamentalist church that has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.
“People often demand free speech to compensate for the freedom of thought they rarely use.”
Some extracts and views from the judgement.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
The ruling, though, was in line with many earlier court decisions that said the First Amendment exists to protect robust debate on public issues and free expression, no matter how distasteful. A year ago, the justices struck down a federal ban on videos that show graphic violence against animals.
In 1988, the court unanimously overturned a verdict for the Rev. Jerry Falwell in his libel lawsuit against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a raunchy parody ad.
Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter, said Snyder wanted only to “bury his son in peace.” Instead, Alito said, the protesters “brutally attacked” Matthew Snyder to attract public attention. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he said.
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and as it did here inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” Roberts said.
Snyder’s reaction, at a news conference in York, Pa.: “My first thought was, eight justices don’t have the common sense God gave a goat.” He added, “We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity.”
But Roberts said the frequency of the protests – and the church’s practice of demonstrating against Catholics, Jews and many other groups – is an indication that Phelps and his flock were not mounting a personal attack against Snyder but expressing deeply held views on public topics.
While distancing themselves from the church’s message, media organisations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.
He said it was possible he would have to pay the Phelps’s around $100,000, which they are seeking in legal fees, since he lost the lawsuit. The money would, in effect, finance more of the same activity he fought against, Snyder said.
I have been following the frequent outlandish behaviour of this church and its leader for some time now and I often shudder at its evilness. I also wonder at what inclines judges to make these sorts of judgments and I also despair at the elevated prominence free speech plays in making them. And how human dignity can be devalued to such utter unimportance.
I am shaken by the insensitive calmness of those seeking to uphold the right to free speech. I remember on Q&A once I watched George Brandis try to make a case for free speech by saying that we should be judged by what we allow people to say rather than by what we don’t.
How simplistic. That people should have the right to insult, harass, humiliate or offend simply because it is their right to freedom of expression is alarming. And they need to be protected by law in doing so. This is why we endure the likes of News Ltd, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.
What is missing here is not the individuals right to free speech, but the way in which he/she does so. If we live in an enlightened collective (society ) then what does the individual owe to the collective. In the same way that labour comes before capital, collective rights and freedoms must come before the individuals right to free speech.
And the individuals right not to be abused by free speech surpasses the individuals right to use it. Maggie Thatcher is famous for her statement “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals making their way” (Paraphrased) This of course is completely wrong because the individual cannot exist outside of the collective and its morals and ethics. Therefore, for the collective to work harmoniously individuals must be constrained by the ethics of truth and decency otherwise free speech is not really free speech. It is no more than licensed hate.
In Australia (and by comparison the USA) the pedlars of verbal violence and dishonesty are the most vigorous defenders of free speech because it gives their vitriolic nonsense legitimacy. With the use of free speech, the bigots and hate-mongers seek to influence those in the community who are susceptible or like-minded. The original intent of free speech was to give a voice to the oppressed and to keep governments honest. In the United States, the first amendment is now used as a justification to incite racism, validate hatred and promote both religious and political bigotry. In a democracy the right to free speech is given by the people through the parliament. However it is impossible to legislate decency. “Therefore, it should be incumbent on people to display decorum, moderation, truth, fact, balance, reason, tolerance, civility and respect for the other point of view.
After all, the dignity of the individual (or individuals) within the collective is more important than some fools right to use freedom of speech to vilify another.
My thought for the day.
“An enlightened society is one in which the suggestion that we need to legislate ones right to hate another person is considered intellectually barren.”