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Freedom of speech is sacred

March 3, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
There's a saying I found in a book of quotations years ago that has stuck with me: " I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It's often attributed to Voltaire, but it seems to have diverse origins.

Regardless of who said it first, it perfectly sums up the meaning of our First Amendment, which two different courts upheld this week in decisions that have attracted controversy.

This week Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has a right to carry signs at the funerals of fallen service members proclaiming that God hates gays. On Tuesday the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., have a right to wear T-shirts saying "Be Happy, Not Gay" in response to the school's Day of Silence in support of the rights of gays and lesbians.

Freedom of speech must be upheld even when the speech is controversial, even abhorrent. Maybe it needs to be upheld especially when the speech is abhorrent.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, though I was, by the number of people on liberal message boards who oppose both decisions. "Hate speech," several of the posters at The Huffington Post called the T-shirt at the suburban Chicago high school. "It should be outlawed." They denounced "backwards" religious viewpoints, which they said should not be voiced in school. The rule of the day must be tolerance and acceptance of all people, they said. I suspect, though I can't prove, that they don't see the irony in that particular point of view.

One especially vehement Huffington poster said the Constitution is not a suicide pact and discussed how speech on U.S. servers was implicated in violence during gay pride parades in Czech Republic. So-called hate speech is outlawed throughout much of Europe as well as in Australia and New Zealand. The Aussies can't quite figure out the decision about the hateful speech by the Westboro church members. It would never be allowed in their country, commenters said. On that, they have a point. Courts have ruled that freedom of speech is not without consequences. Speech that incites violence or reckless endangerment is not allowed. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals correctly noted as much and said that a T-shirt that caused disruption in the school environment or directly attacked another student could have been legally restricted.

In the panel's judgment, a T-shirt saying "Be Happy, Not Gay," did not disturb the peace, did not incite violence, did nothing more than express an opposing view. It is protected speech and freedom of speech is sacred in this country.Those who opposed the girl's T-shirt had the option of ignoring it, of wearing their own T-shirts expressing an opposing view, and of expressing their disapproval in any number of imaginative ways. What they were not allowed to do was shut her up, which is what they tried to do. Teachers and students who objected to the T-shirt went to the principal and complained. The principal tried to send the girl home to change. When the girl resisted, the principal ordered that the message on the T-shirt be inked out so it just read "Be Happy." At that point, the girl sued and the case has been making its way through the courts since 2005.

The Westboro Church members and their protests at funerals are noxious to the vast majority of people in the United States. Their speech causes emotional harm, though no violence, to people suffering unimaginable anguish. We would all like to shut them up. But we don't have that right. We shut them up at our peril because we lose a little of our own liberty every time someone else loses his.

The only acceptable response to speech we don't agree with is more speech.


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