Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rights vs. Rights

What do you do if one inalienable right bumps up against another inalienable right? It’s the old irresistible force/immovable object argument played out once again as varying groups battle over the US Constitution’s intent.

In this case, we’re dealing with a small assembly of fundamentalists, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. These people believe God is angry at the United States for a number of transgressions, including homosexuality, abortion, and other perceived sins. God, they say, is punishing us by killing American soldiers overseas. Lately, the group has taken to picketing military funerals with signs that read “God Is Your Enemy” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The church comprises mostly members of the Phelps family, many of whom have gone to law school and are eager to test the limits of free speech and expression. Their leader, Fred Phelps, dislikes gays, Blacks, Jews, most Christians, America, immigrants of all stripes and anything else that doesn’t agree with his “you have sinned and God hates you philosophy.”

There is no doubt the actions of the group are repugnant. Creating a disturbance during a funeral—any funeral—is a hideous way of protesting against something you don’t agree with. The family of a dead soldier being interred deserves better than to see and hear disparaging comments about the loved one no longer with them. They have inalienable rights too: the right to worship without being disturbed, and the right to privacy.

Surely the Founding Fathers could never envisage that the document they were drafting back in 1787 would ever be challenged in such a manner. Nor, I think, could they foresee that the media—the free media they championed—would rush to the side of the Phelps family.

Here’s the thing… The media is terrified of any encroachment of its right to free speech. And so, much like the National Rifle Association’s fear that any control of firearms could one day lead to a banning of guns, the media has decided that any action that could eventually be seen to encroach on free speech must be challenged.

This is ridiculous. We’re not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not allowed to preach sedition, or foment murder, or join an enemy that the country is battling. All these things could be seen as challenges to freedom of speech but they’re not. They are common sense rules that any group must abide with if it is to live in a peaceful and cohesive manner.

It’s truly disappointing that the stalwarts of the press are so shortsighted they cannot see the difference between apples and oranges. And it makes me sort of embarrassed that I was once one of them.

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