Agree or not, free speech is protected

Posted on 02 Mar 2011 at 3:54pm

Earlier today, David Taffet reported on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the right of those right-of-right-wing loonies at Westboro Baptist “God Hates Fags” Church to stage their protests outside the funerals of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Westboro protests, the court said, are a form of speech and they are protected under the First Amendment.

Just as a reminder, the Phelps Clan of Westboro Baptist stages protests outside the funerals to, basically, cheer God on for letting these servicemen and women get killed. The Westboro nuts say that the war and the deaths of the servicemembers is God’s punishment on this country for being too liberal, especially when it comes to gay rights. The case started in 2006 when the father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued the Westboro group and won an $11 milllion judgment in trial court. But the appeals court overturned the trial court decision, and the Supremes upheld the appeals court.

Now, in a similar situation, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that officials at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., cannot prohibit students from wearing slogan T-shirts to school, even if those slogans might hurt some students’ feelings. Those shirts are a form of free speech, the court said, and are protected under the First Amendment, according to reports on the Wall Street Journal’s “Law Blog.”

This case started in 2006, too, and it, too, has to do with anti-gay speech. It seems that some students at Neuqua High wore shirts supporting LGBT rights as part of National Day of Silence, the event sponsored each year by Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network to raise awareness of anti-gay bullying, according to reports in The Chicago Sun-Times. The next day, a student named Heidi Zamecnik wore a shirt with the message, “Be happy, not gay.” School officials told her she had to change shirts because the message would be disruptive and might hurt other students’ feelings.

As in the Westboro case, the trial court ruled against the anti-gay speech. And again, the appeals court overturned the trial court. If the school lets students wear shirts with slogans supporting LGBT rights, then they have to allow the opposing opinions as well. And the “be happy, not gay” shirts don’t rise to the level of “fighting words” (one of the exceptions to the First Amendment is speech likely to incite immediate violence).

I have seen several Facebook posts today from people angry over the Westboro Baptist ruling, and there will likely be others regarding the Neuqua High case. People just don’t see why these  bigots should be allowed to get away with being hateful for the sake of hatefulness. But I have to say I think the courts, in both cases, got it right.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Westboro/Phelps group are a bunch of ignorant, hateful assholes. And the girl who wore the “be happy, not gay” shirt is a narrow-minded, silly child who is, at best, totally uncreative. But the fact is, the same constitutional protections that give me the right to call the Phelps clan assholes and the Neuqua High student a silly child gives them the right to wave their “God hates fags” signs and wear their stupid shirts.

We can demand rights for ourselves, folks, and then get mad when other people exercise the same rights for themselves. Free speech is still free speech, even when it’s speech we don’t like or don’t agree with.

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