The tragic shootings in Tucson raise, yet again, a critical question in a country which cherishes the First Amendment: how much must we tolerate intolerance in the defense of free speech?
It’s not even about conservative rabble-rouser Glenn Beck, who commonly uses heated rhetoric (and some outright misstatements) to rally his supporters—and who is now piously attacking the left for purportedly using the shootings to taint the Tea Party movement. The sad truth is that while the shootings are a good argument for dialing down the rhetoric all around, the episode has also served to reinforce the anger and distrust among politically-opposed people. [Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]
But the worst offender—and toughest test of our commitment to free speech—is the attention-seeking (and attention-getting) Westboro Baptist Church, a wacky, anti-gay institution in Topeka, Kan. These are the people who have had the bad taste to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers who died serving their country. Church members argue that God is punishing the military for tolerating homosexuality (a remarkable assertion since the protests occurred when the military’s official policy was to require gays and lesbians to keep their sexual orientation a secret).
But even the Westboro Baptist Church found a way to get to a new low when it announced it would picket the funeral of nine-year-old Christina Green, the third-grader killed in the Tucson rampage. On its website, pastor Fred Phelps stands before a sign, featuring a depiction of bloody bullet-holes, that said, "God Sent the Shooter." It makes the gun references during the 2010 mid-term election campaigns look positively tame and reasonable. [Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?]
Arizona lawmakers quickly enacted a law prohibiting protests at or near funeral sites. That’s an unfortunate erosion of the First Amendment, but sadly, a necessary one, since we are apparently in an era where common decency needs to be legislated in select circumstances. And the Topeka Capital-Journal recently reported that Phelps’s crew won’t try to picket the funeral after all, since they have been promised air time on two radio stations (one in Topeka, the other in Canada) to discuss the church’s views. That deal will spare the grieving family from further pain. But how sad that a fringe group of professional harassers have been given yet another platform for their hate. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should military funeral protests be protected by the First Amendment?]