Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Not Free Unless the Courts Agree!

A recent Supreme Court ruling affirming free speech rights in a controversial case, one pitting freedom of religion against freedom of speech, comes as no surprise, but what was surprising was the one judicial hold out, the lone dissenter, associate justice Samuel Alito.

You remember Justice Alito, the lone dissenter again (ostensibly, that is), during one of Obama's presidential speeches before congress, shaking his head and possibly mouthing the words, "not true," to a statement Obama made expressing disapproval of a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Thanks to that controversial free-speech ruling, we can all rest easy tonight snug in the assurance that our free speech rights will continue unabated and untarnished.

Corporations can continue, without fear of reprisal, to spend massive amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections and the viability of certain legislation; Sara Palin, the run-away Alaskan governor, can continue to insist that President Obama "pals around with terrorists;"[1] Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, can continue to say falsely (forgetting: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.") that president Obama grew up in Kenya and was heavily influenced by his father and grandfather who opposed British imperialism;[2] and Michele Bachmann, the flower of American patriotism, can continue to cast the president as un-American, and his administration as "gangster-"like.[3]

Of course they do it, because there's a segment of the population that thrives on this mendacious fare, and upon whom much of it is heavily lavished: it sells millions of books, if you're Huckabee, Palin, and George Bush;[4] sets you up as a Tea Party Caucus leader of a rather "anemic" group, if you're Michelle Bachmann[5]; and puts millions of dollars into political war chests, if you're Scott Walker, or a growing number of other politicos, Scott Brown, for example, vying to be the political darlings of the Koch brothers.[6]

Rights are rights, but oftentimes they conflict. For example, when does our right to express our religious beliefs, vouchsafed by the same document that guarantees our freedom to speak, takes precedence, if, and when, those rights clash, as in this case? To my knowledge there's no hierarchy of rights. As such, they all stand firmly on an equal footing, one independent of the other.

If we take reckless liberties with the right to speak (in this case in writing or print, or on a sign), we may be accused of libel, brought into court and sued. This is a limit to free speech that all courts recognize and support. But since the decedent in this case, once dead, has no reputation to protect, and, therefore, cannot suffer an infliction where damages may be assessed, the case is moot.

If we take reckless liberties, as did the Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps and other church members, that encroach upon a person's right to bury a loved one according to the precepts of his religion, then that expression is protected, all the way to the Supreme Court:

"In a case pitting free-speech versus privacy rights, the nation's highest court held that the picketing at a private funeral and even hurtful protest messages were protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

"The decision by an 8-1 vote was the latest in a long line of Supreme Court rulings that free-speech rights protected even outrageous or offensive conduct, including the burning of the American flag.

"The ruling was a defeat for Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. He sued after the family's funeral service at a Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland, drew unwanted protests by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas."[7]

Although one of the pillars of our democracy has been strengthened by this ruling, not all are satisfied with the outcome, and have been rather vocal with their opposition. Under the title, Schieffer: First Amendment Rights Gone Too Far?, Bob Schieffer gives expression to my view as well:

"(CBS News) I've spent most of my life defending the First Amendment. But when the Supreme Court ruled last week that it gave a church group the right to picket a dead soldier's funeral with signs that said, "God Hates You" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," I was appalled.

"The group believes our soldiers are dying because God is punishing America for tolerating gay people. That anyone would have the audacity to claim knowledge of God's reasoning is ridiculous, but here's what I don't understand.

"The courts have long held that free speech can be limited in rare circumstances. We can't yell fire in a crowded theater if there is no fire, because it would endanger public safety - people might be trampled in the chaos.

"The First Amendment has done just fine with that limit.

"But if that is so, why isn't public safety endangered when a mob hurls brutal abuse at an innocent citizen who could be scarred with severe and lasting emotional damage?

"We must obey the law, because we are a nation of laws. But whatever the laws, what these military families have endured is not right, and every community must now move quickly to establish buffer zones (which are legal) to keep these protesters as far as possible from military funerals.

"When there are those among us so selfish and cruel they are willing to use one of our most cherished freedoms to intrude on the grief of parents who have lost a child just to promote their cause, we must do everything legally possible to deter them.

"The court has ruled, but the effort to protect these families must go on."

[1]"Palin said today, according to a transcript distributed by the campaign. 'These are the same guys who think patriotism is paying higher taxes. This is not a man who sees America as you and I do — as the greatest force for good in the world.

"'This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country,' Palin concluded, in the hardest shot of the statement."

[2]"Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says President Barack Obama's childhood in Kenya shaped his world view -- despite the fact that Obama did not visit Kenya until he was in his 20s.

"The potential Republican presidential candidate told New York radio station WOR that Obama was raised in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather.

"Actually, Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya whom he would barely know. He spent his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia and did not visit his father's homeland until 1987, well after his father's death."

[3] "MR. GREGORY: You, you've referred to the Obama administration as a gangster government. You've said that this president has anti-American views. Do you believe that still?

"REP. BACHMANN: I believe that the actions of this government have, have been emblematic of ones that have not been based on true American values. Just consider Obamacare. Over 900 waivers have been given out to unions and protected special interests that are linked to the president. That's not right."

[4] "'America by Heart,' Palin's new memoir, has logged disappointing receipts since it officially went on sale late last month, publishing sources say. Although the book is second on the New York Times bestseller list this week (behind former president George W. Bush's memoir, "Decision Points") , its publisher, HarperCollins, hasn't ordered a second printing - a sign that sales haven't been overly brisk.

"By contrast, Palin's first book, "Going Rogue," became the second-fastest-selling political book in history upon its release last year, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks industry sales. It went into a second printing three days after its release and went on to sell 2.2 million copies in hardcover, according to the publisher."

[5] "That is pretty anemic! In fact, it means that Tea Party Caucus ranks have actually diminished under the "leadership" of Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs Michele Bachmann (R-MN-06), which is really remarkable given the constant fluffing the Teabagger contingent gets from the national press. Seriously, who would have guessed that there would be fewer members of the caucus in this Congress versus last?"

[6] "At the public dedication of MIT’s David H. Koch Integrative Cancer Institute last Friday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) effusively thanked conservative billionaire David Koch for supporting his election in 2010 and made a plea for help in his re-election campaign next year."
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