I can be stupid. It is my right as an American. I can do stupid things and say stupid things whenever I want to. I could walk up to Floyd Merriweather and call him an ugly wife-beater if I wanted to. If he then added “ugly Bart-beater” to his resume he would be arrested for assaulting me. The fact that I was an idiot for provoking him would not matter at all. This is America, and we value the rights of idiots.
Valuing and protecting the rights of people to say stupid things is a part of our history and it is enshrined in case law. Don’t believe me? Consider-
Skokie, Illinois had a unique demography in 1977. A town of 70,000 people, over 40,000 of its residents were of Jewish descent. A large number of them, perhaps over 10,000, were survivors of German concentration camps. Given these facts, promoting Nazi ideals or displaying a swastika in Skokie would be undeniably stupid and offensive. Enter Frank Collins, an undeniably stupid and offensive man. The president of the National Socialist Party of America, he applied for a permit to have a group of Nazis march in Skokie, complete with swastika armbands.
City officials determined that such a march would be hurtful to its residents, so many of whom had been personally harmed by Nazi Germany. City residents were planning a counter protest expected to include over 10,000 people and there was a fear violence might erupt. Officials denied the permit.
Frank Collins and his band of idiots appealed the denial all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Frank Collins won his appeal. In the United States individuals are free to say terrible things.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a congregation of fools poorly named. Their actions are inconsistent with the Baptist faith and any traditional definition of what a church is or should do. The small church has built its reputation staging protests and picketing military funerals with signs declaring “God Hates Fags,” “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” and other inflammatory slogans. In 2006 they picketed the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a young soldier who had been killed in an accident in Iraq. For his family, the Westboro signs were more than they could bear. Determined that no other family be forced to have their mourning similarly defiled they filed suit against the church.
Their case also found its way to the Supreme Court. Many briefs were submitted and statements made in support of the family’s position. The belief that the Westboro speech was idiotic and offensive seemed to be universally held. While the Supreme Court seemed to share that belief, they ruled against the family. In the United States individuals are free to say terrible and stupid things.
Stupid speech has again entered the national debate in the wake of the recent shootings in Garland, Texas. Pamela Geller and others hosted a contest for the best cartoon of Mohammed. It is common knowledge that this is offensive to many Muslims and that their faith bans any images of Mohammed. A number of terror attacks around the world have been carried out against people who have drawn such cartoons, most notably the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris four months ago.
Given the fact that such cartoons have been known to result in a violent response many pundits and commentators have attacked Ms. Geller and her associates, calling them foolish and stupid. Many have come out and said that the concept of free speech was never intended to allow such foolishness.
I am of the opposite opinion. I believe that free speech is intended and created specifically to allow such foolishness. The alternative is frightening. If we in America decide that some speech is too stupid and inflammatory to protect we will lose free speech entirely. Overlooked by those who would support limits that would prevent speech such as that seen in Skokie, Westboro and Garland is a key question. If a line is to be drawn, who will draw it and where will it be drawn?
I have no doubt that such a line, once drawn, would move over time. If the definition of offensive speech is established by the majority then minority speech will disappear. As a man of faith, I am certain that in our increasingly secular culture we would see religious speech curtailed over time. This has already happened in Canada, where their Supreme Court has ruled that preaching that the bible condemns homosexual behavior constitutes a hate crime.
We need to be careful. Throughout history many bad things have been done with the best of intentions. Limiting stupid and offensive speech would be a bad thing. The response to "bad" speech cannot be violence or legal restraint. Pamela Geller understands this and I believe this was the reason she held the event, that she was saying, "We need to be a nation where we endorse free speech regardless of the risk, we will not be intimidated." The fact that some may consider her actions foolhardy does not alter the reality of the world in which we live. If we limit our speech out of fear of violence, violent people win , violent responses will increase, and speech will be further restricted. If we limit speech because others may be hurt or offended, the perpetually aggrieved will win, and more and more speech will be found offensive and in need of suppression. When that happens, we all lose.
I typically avoid political posts, but as there is nothing partisan in the post I felt it was appropriate. As always, comments and questions are welcome.