By Juhem Navarro-Rivera
“Complaints are everywhere … that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided … by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Snyder v. Phelps et al. This was a free speech case that pitted Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, Kansas), famous for their protests outside the funerals of servicemen, against the father of one of the deceased soldiers whose funeral was protested by the WBC.
The WBC is a hateful and vile organization, there’s no question about it. Their homophobia, fanaticism and lack of empathy makes them a rare group that gets bipartisan condemnation: the left decries its hateful speech, the right castigates them for their attack on soldiers. The father of Corporal Snyder deserves our sympathy and we should support him by condemning the WBC and countering their message. Still, when the lower court awarded five million dollars in damages against the WBC, they crossed the line by punishing speech. Last week’s decision corrected that because as repugnant and hateful the WBC’s speech is, the government has no business in stifling speech just because such speech is painful.
If the government gets in the business of defining what is acceptable speech, then people who are part of a minority can be easily silenced by unsympathetic majorities. Only by affirming the free speech rights of those at the extreme, the free speech rights of the rest of us can be safe. As a Latino and an atheist, I belong to groups that are unpopular depending on where you live. In secular New England, I’m safer than in other parts of the country to criticize religion and its influence in government and society. As a Latino, I’m glad that I live in a place with a well-organized community, vigilant of our rights and aware of our responsibilities as Americans. I also know that were this not the case and the majority decided to define our demands for better representation as inappropriate that I have somewhere in the system to go and defend myself.
Madison’s quote warns about the dangers and pitfalls of majorities which may be big enough to dominate and attack the liberty of minorities. His solution, as architect of the Constitution, was not to ban majorities or groups, for it may stifle debate. His solution was to diffuse power and create barriers to limit what those majorities can do. He was aware that the power of a majority can be detrimental to free speech; especially when the speaker is unsympathetic. So, while I do not agree with Phelps and his crew, I’m certainly glad that the Court still defends free speech in broad terms. Now they just need to reverse their decision on “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” to make me completely happy.
To learn more about Juhem, visit The LatiNone.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.