On Free Speech


Certain misguided if likable (at least in the case of Andrew Sullivan) conservatives and libertarians are questioning the verdict against “asshole of metaphysically transcendent proportion” Fred Phelps, who with his “church” picketed the funeral of a gay marine, as a potentially “bad precedent” for First Amendment free-speech rights. For those untrained in the nuances of constitutional law — and with some regret we admit that we do not belong to this group — we would like to simply point out that the First Amendment has never been a carte blanche to say whatever you want wherever you want to say it. (The classic case is the prohibition against screaming “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.)  Nobody is disputing Phelps’ right to express his idiotic views; the government (and by extension, its laws, whether statutory or common-law based) is simply limiting the forum in which he can do so. We think that this is hardly unreasonable in the context of funerals, just as it is reasonable to limit the rights of proselytizers (or anyone else, really) to say, set up a loudspeaker in front of your house and preach at you all day and night. Those who latch onto to the Phelps case as an example of government excess are really doing themselves an injustice, unless it is their desire to present themselves as unthinking morons.  

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