As it stands, the First Amendment gives anyone the right to voice their opinion, regardless of what that may be. Should speech that is blatantly offensive remain protected?
According to Fox News’ “Hannity and Colmes” the answer is an unequivocal “no.” This stems from an incident where the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist church group carried signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Don’t Worship the Dead” outside a funeral held for an American soldier killed in Iraq.
Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, hosts of the Fox News program, “Hannity and Colmes,” (in what must have been a somewhat divisive issue for the Republicans) sided with the war effort while denouncing the religion-based protesters.
The Fox News pair supported the idea that, through legislation, members of the church be banned from protesting the funeral of a soldier. While Shirley Phelps-Roper, member of the Westboro collective, claims that the church is simply exercising the First Amendment freedom that the soldiers are fighting for.
What was a seemingly complex issue concerning First Amendment and democratic rights was rapidly assessed and evaluated by the Fox duo, as well as many others who believe a soldier’s funeral is off-limits to free speech. However, free speech must be allowed to flourish, in any capacity, regardless of the offenses it might cause; if one does not believe in free speech for those they oppose, one does not ultimately believe in free speech.
The Westboro Church, which believes God is punishing the United States for the nation’s tolerance towards homosexuality, has traditionally protested memorial services for AIDS victims but has recently attracted national attention after protesting the funerals of fallen American soldiers with anti-gay rhetoric.
Although the ideology of the church is skewed at best, they present an important paradox found in America. According to Fox News, the protested funerals have prompted 14 states to consider outlawing the group’s demonstrations.
The double standard here is that neither Fox News, Hannity and Colmes, nor any state official responded when the church group targeted the funerals of AIDS victims. This implies that those who oppose the protest, only do so because it conflicts with a personal agenda.
Hannity and Colmes are notorious defenders of a right-wing, conservative ideology; in an ironic twist of fate, the church group held views further right of the spectrum than those of Hannity and Colmes. In fact, it would not be surprising if this is the first time they have ever sided against a Christian-based movement.
However, the church group crossed the proverbial line when they decided to attack the most trusted and sacred conservative institution, the military. Historically, war trumps religion. Hannity and Colmes, as spokespersons for those who oppose the protesting of a soldier’s funeral, but not the AIDS victim, have drawn arbitrary boundaries around the First Amendment according to what conflicts with their philosophy. This is one hole in the bucket, as it were.
Furthermore, the implications for this sort of imposed ideological authority over free speech are not only unfounded, but dangerous. If the position of Fox News is on the side of governmental lobbying for the ban on the protesters, it is because Fox News subscribes to the Republican philosophy.
In this isolated issue, the free speech of the protesters threatens and offends the beliefs of those in power. The result: implementing legislation that prevents speech deemed offensive to an ideological cause, the military. If the present governing body fell out of power to a government with a different mentality, say a bleeding-heart, liberal objective, it would not be in the interest of the conservative to push for censorship, as that censorship would likely be self-defeating.
As there is no almighty philosopher king (no, Fox, Bill O’Reilly does not count) to decide what is universally offensive, there can never be any limitation on free speech as there is simply too much room for any given political agenda to manipulate and exploit censorship.
Freedom of speech and expression must exist in the purest, most unabridged state, or it cannot exist at all. It is understood that this can lead to individuals taking offense with the sentiments and words of others. This, however, is not a folly of the First Amendment, but a crucial principle that has shaped our nation. The idea that truth surfaces through open discourse is validated in that the very concept of truth is subjective. There is no absolute truth. Free speech allows all ideologies to exist and depends on the individual to decide which philosophy to subscribe to.
Limiting speech, in turn restricts one’s ability to express oneself and minimizes the capacity for passionate conviction. When speech is censored, dialogue is consequently narrowed as only the expressions that do not cause offense are allowed to filter through. As a result, apathy and complacency replace vigor and critical thinking. It is not only our right to say offensive statements, it is also our right-arguably, our duty-to be offended. A world without soapbox preachers, vigilante muckrakers or even the likes of Hannity and Colmes would be frightening and bleak, an Orwellian nightmare.
The Westboro Church group, as misguided and erroneous as they are, should be offensive to America. Not only should they be offensive; they should be inspiring to a nation so immersed in an apathetic coma. Fox news (you’re only going to hear me say this once) should be commended for its ability to voice concern and opinion in a public forum with such conviction. Although Fox vows to suppress all opposing voices, they ironically rely on the First Amendment they oppose to make themselves heard. It is no doubt offensive and crass to protest any agenda at any funeral as that disrespects the individual and the individual’s family, but not allowing the voice of the protester to be heard would be silencing an entire nation.