Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Speech and Freedom Thereof

This is quite the week for the discussion of speech and freedom. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which hinges on the determination whether standing outside a fallen Marine's funeral with signs reading "GOD HATES FAGS" and "THANK GOD FOR IEDS" qualifies as protected speech. This, of course, is the penchant of the aforementioned "Reverend" Phelps, who with the few dozen blood relatives who make up his "church" has made an avocation of tormenting the bereaved beloved of this nation's fallen heroes, as well as those of gay victims of AIDS. The premise avowed by Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church is, as far as I can stomach to gather, that God is punishing the U.S. with military defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan for our collective sin of allowing closeted homosexuals to serve in the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Presumably God would be appeased if we only cleansed the Armed Forces in some sort of gay-baiting witch hunt, after which our Certified Straight® military would win the War on Terror. I'll admit, I'm not exactly clear on the theology involved.

In any case, the question before the court is whether the "Reverend" Phelps, his minions, and their odious ravings fall under the protection of the First Amendment. I believe they do, and I'll be rather surprised if the court doesn't come to the same conclusion. The protest in question was held at the statutory thousand-foot distance from the funeral, and was thus unable to directly interrupt the proceedings. The remaining argument is that their protest might constitute "hate speech".

Ahh, "hate speech". We are right to be a bit queasy about limiting any speech at all, so if we are going to say that hate speech is unprotected, clearly the definition of what constitutes hate speech becomes a very important matter. Much political advocacy is hateful to its detractors, after all, so it would seem obvious that to define hate speech based on the perceptions of the aggrieved effectively grants censorship authority to the thinnest-skinned in society. Our Supreme Court seems to have recognized this, as I understand they have historically worked from an exceedingly narrow definition of hate speech.

Not so in the Netherlands (you knew I was getting to this, right?). After prosecutors chose not to file hate speech charges against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Muslims aggrieved by his short film Fitna took the issue to the Court of Appeals, where they succeeded in forcing his currently-running trial. There is considerable evidence that Wilders's political opponents have been involved in orchestrating his trial. In a way, seeing this trial as just another function of machine politics as usual is comforting, more comforting anyway than seeing it as part of the "legal jihad" to put criticism of Islam off-limits worldwide (as in the UN's ridiculous "Combating Defamation of Religion" resolution). European countries are increasingly embracing a definition of hate speech based on grievance, and the result of the Wilders trial will signal whether Europe continues on the road toward mass censorship by the aggrieved. Speech doesn't become "hate speech" simply because it makes someone cranky. Be thankful that our Supreme Court has upheld that narrower standard.

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