Albert Snyder, left, speaks following a Supreme Court's ruling. His attorney Sean Summers looks on. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)
“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
— John Milton
You are not the same person you were years ago. This is not the same country it was a few decades ago. Attitudes have changed. Ideas are different. Firmly held beliefs have been rejected and replaced.
This is partly due to free speech.
Fifty years ago attitudes about soldiers were different. Attitudes about homosexuality were different.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-1 ruling stood by the power of free speech to effect change, whether for good or evil. In the case of Synder v. Phelps the court held the power of speech cannot be judged by its impact on someone’s sensibilities. It settled the question of where one’s free speech fist ends and another’s private nose begins.
Of course, this was the case in which a grieving father was suing those outrageous clowns from Westboro Baptist Church who picketed outside his soldier son’s funeral carrying signs saying “Thank God for IEDs,” “Fag Troops,” “Semper Fi Fags” and “God Hates Fags.”
The court found this to be free speech. The protest did not interrupt the funeral. It was merely hurtful.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
“Outrageousness,” however, is a highly malleable standard with “an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.” … In a case such as this, a jury is “unlikely to be neutral with respect to the content of [the] speech,” posing “a real danger of becoming an instrument for the suppression of … ‘vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasan[t]’” expression. … Such a risk is unacceptable; “in public debate [we] must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
We can’t lock our mores in place. They must have breathing space.