That Darned First Amendment Thing

Patriot Guard

Fighting free speech with free speech. Image via Wikipedia

Growing-up near Topeka, Kansas, I was a member of a Boy Scout troop that met at Saint David’s Episcopal Church on Gage Blvd. Across the street was another church, a Lutheran Church whose membership consisted of a few homosexual members. How did I know? The picket signs in front of the church made it loud and clear.

These were the fledgling activities of a group that calls itself the Westboro Baptist Church, led by disbarred lawyer Fred Phelps. I think most readers know the history of this group from that point forward–particularly their activities since 2001. Their antics disgusted me then, and they disgust me even more now.

Today, in an 8-1 vote (Alito dissent), the court ruled in favor of the group’s right to voice their political and hate views in the presence of servicemembers’ funerals. My feelings are conflicted greatly, given my midwestern upbringing, 11-year service in the Army, and dedication to being a CDL.

I hate what they do, but I’m glad they have the right to do it. I say this as a spokesperson for nobody but myself.  Though, I hope a few others see it the same way.

Make no mistake, their actions scar the families of the kids who gave their lives in service to our country. They are rude, ruthless, and uncaring. In their minds, they serve a god who makes the god of the Old Testament look like a compassionate philanthropist.

At the same time, I know that placing restrictions on free speech is a dangerously slippery slope. Any restriction, no matter how well-meaning, can result in the suppression of the ideas and speech of many who deserve the protections that the First Amendment provides. If we must tolerate a few idiots in order to empower a lot of non-idiots, I’m all for it. Albeit, it occasionally pains me.

When you read about them, you have a right to be angry, but fight the urge to focus your anger on the First Amendment. Instead, focus it on doing something positive. One way is to support or join the Patriot Guard Riders. These guys and gals fight free speech with free speech. They form cordons to prevent families from enduring the Westboro hate speech. They wave flags, rev motorcycles (most with drag pipes), and sing patriotic and sympathetic songs. Their goal is to replace any dignity that may have been lost by the presence of the Phelps clan. I’ve met a few, and they are good people trying to do good things.

Finally, I want to say something to the families who suffer (have suffered) because of Westboro’s hate. We all owe a debt of gratitude for the sacrifices of your loved-one. They gave their life for something much bigger than themselves, their teammates, their family, or their community. And, their life was not given in vain. The fact that the Westboro Baptist Church can do what they do is proof of that. Just know that there are people out there, many of them downtrodden, who have a voice because of the collective sacrifices of many loved-ones. Every free voice we hear is an honor to them–intended or not.