Our collisions with error

    The world would be a better place if the hate peddlers of the Westboro Baptist Church agreed to shut their yaps. But they won’t, so it is our sad but essential task to defend their constitutional right to rant.As eight U.S. Supreme Court judges reminded us the other day – in a decision that transcended ideological boundaries and united virtually everyone from Clarence Thomas to Sonia Sotomayor – our free-speech convictions are strongest when we hold our noses and stand up for the odious.I was again reminded of this duty yesterday when Westboro attorney Margie Phelps, the daughter of Fred the founder, brought her unique brand of sagacity to the Fox News studio. She decreed, for instance, that Barack Obama will “absolutely” dwell for eternity in the fiery netherworld where Satan reigns supreme; in her words, “The president is going to be king of the world before this is all said and done, and he is most likely the Beast spoken of in the Revelation.” She also said that American soldiers are worse than al Qaeda, because “those soldiers are fighting for same-sex marriage.”Is this a great country or what, that our bedrock principles protect even our battiest crackpots? Phelps can float her swill on a Sunday show, and the church protesters can display their slogans outside military funerals “(“Thank God for dead soldiers”), yet we can be confident that virtually everything they say or scrawl will be summarily rejected in the free marketplace of ideas. Margue Phelps can boast, as she did yesterday, that “this case put a megaphone to the mouth of this church,” but it takes a lot more than vile noise to make a sale.Chief Justice John Roberts wrote last Wednesday, in Snyder v. Phelps, that even though the church’s messages “fall short of refined social and political commentary,” we nevertheless need “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues, to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” The best response to lunacy is not to censor it, but to trump it; as Thomas Jefferson said way back in the day, “Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”The Westboro case, in which the offended family of a slain Marine sought monetary damages from the church, brings to mind the contentious free-speech case of 1977, when Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, living in Skokie, Illinois, sought to prevent a small band of neo-Nazis from marching in their town.The lawyer for the Nazis – a Jewish civil libertarian – ultimately prevailed. An Illinois judge wrote that “it is better (for the courts) to allow those who preach racial hate to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear.” Shortly thereafter, a federal appeals court agreed: “First Amendment rights are truly precious and fundamental to our national life….It is, after all, the fact that our constitutional system protects minorities unpopular at a particular time or place from government harassment and intimidation, that distinguishes life in this country from life under the Third Reich.” In the end, the neo-Nazis decided instead to march in nearby Chicago; as expected, their First Amendment expression had zero impact on public opinion. And the Jewish citizens of Skokie ultimately found a better way to deal with hate speech. They helped create the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, which is all about “combating hate with education.”In other words, let the extremists peddle their noxious wares in the marketplace of ideas – where they are bound to be ignored, or beaten with reason. Perhaps John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher and political theorist, said it best in his famous 1869 condemnation of censorship:”The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race….If the opinion is right, (people) are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”——-For me, this week figures to be unusually busy. I may well compensate for my time squeeze by offering some recommended readings. You might want to start with George Will’s Sunday column, which deliciously eviscerates Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich – “careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons.”

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