Freedom: A complex priceless commodity

Editor’s note: Below is the Between the Lines column originally published right after Vermillion celebrated Veteran’s Day last November.

In light of the March 2 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the Westboro Baptist Church, it is worth sharing with readers once more.

The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision. “Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.”

But under the First Amendment, he went on, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”


One could easily argue that what I’m about to write about – the Westboro Baptist Church – has nothing do with Veterans Day, which our nation celebrated Nov. 11.

I think one could just as easily argue that this church and its band of protestors pretty much sums up the very essence of Veterans Day.

It is, indeed, a paradox.

By now, we’re all familiar with this church and its activities, which have been in the news; it seems, for nearly the past decade now.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Kansas, have attended hundreds of military funerals toting signs that read, “God Hates the USA” or “Thank God for 9/11.” They call the deaths punishment for Americans’ immorality. Their actions have created outrage and anger throughout the country, and they have been taken to the Supreme Court in a case that pits free speech against the privacy owed a grieving family burying a son or daughter.

… the church, consisting almost entirely of the family members of its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps continues picketing funerals.

One would hardly deem what Phelps and his followers are doing to be humane or upstanding or patriotic. But, the fact that he’s able to do it at all is a teachable moment for all of us.

Phelps is, by the very simplest definition, being an American. Maybe not a decent American, but he’s one of us, with the same rights of free expression we all enjoy.

Ironically, the U.S. Constitution, the document that has laid the groundwork for over two centuries now to guarantee that “Congress shall pass no law” that would short us of the basic freedoms we all enjoy, is a living, breathing document kept safe for all of us by the very soldiers who lay down their lives, year after year, decade after decade, to protect it.

For all of us. Even Phelps and his motley crew.

It will be interesting to see the eventual outcome after the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the notion of whether what the Westboro Baptist Church is doing constitutes, say, hate speech, or protected speech, or a First Amendment expression that trumps the respectful solitude that every family, especially those of a fallen soldier, so rightly deserve.

I’m guessing there will be no easy answer to this quandary; there’s likely a good chance that Phelps and his disruptive influence will be around for a long, long time.So it was with a bit of delight that I read a blog in the Washington Post this morning (Tuesday, Nov. 9) about a recent incident in which citizens battled Phelps and his followers with their own weapon: a protest.

Bikers’ groups such as the Patriot Guard have patrolled funerals to hide the sight of the Westboro Church members. For a recent funeral in Lamar, Mo., hundreds of people lined the street waving American flags in front of the Westboro protesters.

And in a different town on Saturday, the Westboro members never even made it to the protest. Nearly a quarter of the residents of Weston, Mo., turned out with huge American flags and patriotic music. When Westboro church members saw the crowd, they left the funeral.

It is an instance that would delight both those who immerse themselves in the study of Constitutional law, and in the laws of physics.

When children, we all learned Newton’s Third Law: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps we never realized how physics is also present in our day-to-day efforts to maintain civility.

I’m not saying this is a perfect solution, but so far, there just doesn’t seem to be one.

We don’t want funerals to become sideshows. We don’t want Westboro people showing up outside a church filled with mourners, and frankly, while the counter-protesters hearts are in the right place, it would be, well, decent and humane if they didn’t have to show up in the first place.

Freedom is a complex thing. There are no easy solutions to some of the challenges it brings.

It is what makes it a priceless commodity, doled out, without question, to you and me and every American.

And protected, without question, by hundreds of thousands of women and men in uniform who have made the ultimate sacrifice because they knew all along that freedom is more precious than life itself.

Every time I read about Phelps, I think about the freedom of expression that he enjoys, even though he practices it in a strange and abusive manner. And I think of the people in the military, both past and present, who make it possible for even the most extreme among us to enjoy our complicated yet wonderful freedom.

Honoring our soldiers in this way — taking time to personally recognize what they’ve done to allow us to remain free — is ultimately the best way to counter Phelps and his hate-filled crusade.


4 Responses to “Freedom: A complex priceless commodity”

  1. 1 Concerned
    March 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Those that are so inclined to abuse the rights afforded them by the 1st amendment should keep in mind that there is still a “2nd amendment” and many Americans out there that prefer to express themselves with action and not words. Violence is never a good option but often is the end result in situations like these. Could it be that our forefathers saw the first two amendments as a form of check and balance?
    I am sickened by the actions of these so called church members. Maybe we should pray that they shall all, someday, come to see the light.

  2. March 20, 2011 at 3:04 am

    No. I find it appalling that anyone would suggest the Founding Fathers, believers in deliberative democracy, would have suggested whipping out a gun is an acceptable repsonse to offensive speech or offensive religious beliefs. The First Amendment was about our fundamental human rights. The Second Amendment was about an obligation to the community to be prepared to take up arms against military threats like the British and the Indians of the day. Totally separate.

  3. 3 MarshaMM
    April 2, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    One should also mention that when the founding fathers wrote those Amendments, the weapon of choice was a musket–hardly the type of firearm one could “whip” out, conceal or load with clips of ammunition capable of being fired rapidly.

    As offensive as Phelps and his hate-mongers are, they are protected under the First Amendment. If we really want them to go away, we should all ignore them and deny them the press they feed off of like so many mutant leaches.

  4. 4 MarshaMM
    April 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    And I apologize to all the leaches out there with my comparison of them and the Phelps “church.”

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