Apr 122010
Authors: Josh Phillips

I have always held free speech in the highest regard and consider the First Amendment one of America’s greatest achievements. In common dialogue, I have been known to use the oft-misquoted Voltaire principle, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote was attributed to Voltaire in Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s “The Friends of Voltaire,” but it was she who originally penned it.)

I believe the First Amendment acts not only as a safeguard against a misbehaving government; it also testifies to the world that freedom lies in the ability to express oneself without fear of recourse or litigation. The First Amendment describes the very core of liberty, the essence of the principles our forefathers traveled across the ocean to establish.

The right to free speech is a precious gift granted by men far wiser than any who live today, and I feel that most Americans — regardless of their political stance — fully appreciate and respect that gift.

Unfortunately, in every society there are outliers. Like the bleating, sobbing fat kid in sixth grade Algebra who brings one too many Big Macs and ruins consumption privileges for the entire class, there are a those in our society who manhandle the First Amendment as though it’s an overcooked, greasy pile of beef and condiments designed to slide down their greedy, corpulent gullets.

My complicated simile refers to the Westboro Church, whose immature and depraved behavior has recently been sustained — nay, encouraged — by a judge who determined that protesting Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder’s funeral was protected under free speech.

After likening the Westboro Church to an impish fat kid in grade school, you’ve no doubt begun to comprehend the philosophical quandary in which I now find myself. My contempt for sniveling, spoiled ingrates like Fred Phelps and his undeniably sociopathic cult fringe is surpassed only by my appreciation of the First Amendment and my respect for those who have served to protect it.

In the end, do I submit to the law of the land and agree that Phelps and his maniacal family retain the right to protest those who died to protect it? Or should I question my rigid acceptance of the law and contemplate the possibility that it fails to satisfactorily address this issue?

I have already decided that I hold the First Amendment to contain a list of inalienable rights, including freedom of speech, but I also feel an insatiable inclination to discipline these fanatics for their perverse discourse. Doing so would fulfill some sense of greater justice, although the rationale may be vitriolic in nature.

How does one reconcile such conflicting viewpoints? The simplest answer is violence, which is commonly adopted by the lowest denominator of society. Unable to handle the mental strain of a divided philosophy, some lash out in a physical manner to regain some sense of control.

I would be lying if I did not admit my first reaction lay in this arena. No doubt it would be quite an internal struggle to meet the delusional members of Westboro and gather enough restraint to avoid earning jail time.

Others, like the judge who oversaw the case, slip into a mild form of schizophrenia that allows them to advocate the rights of a particular group while simultaneously denying others, basing their decision on some rationale that exists solely in a psychosomatically hallucinated fantasyland.

After considering my quandary for quite some time, I realized I had fallen prey to the mindset I most often decry. I approached the two views as mutually exclusive, meaning that to accept one concurrently rejected the other.

Our politicians and commentators often deal in such absolutes, leading to outlandish suggestions that our fellow man is an enemy.

To reconcile the issue, I would have to reframe it as a spectrum rather than a decision between two distinct polar opposites. Perhaps we can respect the law, yet reject it as a panacea for every situation.

And perhaps I can revert to the more primitive solution as discussed above.

After all, a judge ruled the protest of a soldier’s burial as free speech. Perhaps he would rule similarly on an assault on Westboro’s members.

Josh Phillips is a senior business administration major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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