Food for thought:
The U.S. court system has held that free speech is not a blank check – there are reasonable limits. For instance, you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater, for fear that the action will put people in harm’s way (potentially violating right to life).
Drawing the line is always fuzzy. When does offensive speech become tantamount to putting people in danger? Several interesting cases of late – currently with different outcomes (though, it is possible that the second has not fully run its course in the court system).
The Westboro Baptist Church has been showing up at the funerals of fallen American soldiers, protesting and declaring that these deaths are judgment on America for it’s tolerance of homosexuality. (Side note – whatever a preacher rails against continually is generally the sin that he struggles with most.) The courts have ruled that this is protected speech. The Westboro Baptist Church can show up at any funeral they want to and shout derogatory slogans at the mourners.
The second case involves Terry Jones, the Quran-burning pastor. Mr. Jones and an associate decided to protest outside the Islamic Center of America. A jury has found that this protest is not defended speech; that the protest is very likely to incite a violent reaction from worshipers at the mosque.
Now, as far as I can tell, the only difference between the two cases is the presumed or expected response of the offended. In the case of the funerals, it is believed that the response of the mourners will be anger but ultimately restraint from violence. However, it is believed that the response from the offended parties at the mosque will be violence. And this, the response of the offended, is the delimiter of free speech.
By this logic, all that is needed to shut up the Westboro Baptist Church is for a violent riot to break out in response to one of their protests. Once that happens, their speech is no longer free, and is tantamount to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Are we serious? This can’t possibly stand up. It cannot possibly be the case that my speech is free as long as you don’t get so upset that you react violently.
For the record, I think both protests are stupid and counterproductive. From where I sit, neither protest furthers the cause of Christ. They are unquestionably offensive. That said, if one is free speech, then it is hard to see how both are not.
We’ll see how the Jones case ends. I suspect he will go through with the protest, be arrested, and appeal the case further up the line … and I also suspect he will win that appeal. For now though, there remains confusion in the interpretation of the law.