Free speech? Evelyn Beatrice Hall had it right

I love Louis Theroux, and have religiously watched all of his documentaries, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with his latest examination of ‘America’s most hated family’. Theroux first visited the Phelps of Kansas, who founded and run the utterly abhorrent Westboro Baptist Church in 2007; this documentary (BBC2, Sunday, 9pm) is their second meeting.

With unprecedented levels of bile and vitriol, the Phelps have made it their mission to tell the world just how angry and vengeful God is,  and just how much he hates gay people, anyone of another faith, or of another race. I can’t even begin to explain their absurd and offensive views, and quite how one is able to conjure up so much hatred toward another person is beyond me.

It does however, raise the interesting question of free speech and that famous quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ‘’I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’’ These words resonate especially when watching the Phelps, and their ilk, waving offensive placards and chanting shocking insults on small-town street corners, and the funerals of military personnel.

The legal question of free speech has become somewhat entwined with the moral question, as the Phelps experienced in a protracted Supreme Court battle with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, over whether their demonstration at his funeral constitutes an expression of free speech (Snyder Vs Phelps).

As much as I hate these people, and what they stand for, you cannot mandate what someone puts on a sign, what words they speak or indeed what thoughts are in their mind. The minefield of what is offensive to some and isn’t to others is a never-ending discussion. The Supreme Court found 8-1 in the Phelps favour; an unprecedented level of consensus amongst the Supreme Court bench’s ideologues.

I am not for a second suggesting that their demonstration is right, decent, or acceptable; it is deplorable to me and the vast majority of observers.  But our society, and that of America, is a society founded on individual freedoms, and one where we fight to protect these rights both at home and internationally. So as galling as it may seem, the Phelps do have a right to express their opinions.

What one would hope for is that general human decency and sensibility would inspire some modicum of self-restraint in their behaviour. There is a time and place for expression of views, and the funeral of a young man isn’t one of them. I may hold views which are offensive to some, in fact I’m sure we all do; it’s the nature of the human race, we are all different, but most of know exactly when to bite our tongue.

Unfortunately the Phelps being the people they are, they haven’t quite mastered that subtle art of simple human decency. So although the legal outcome may sit at odds with our moral opinion, the fact of the Phelps existence is absolute. And while I certainly couldn’t bring myself to defend their rights, I leave that to the minds of the Supreme Court and Beatrice Hall, the best I can hope for is to laugh at them.

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6 Responses to Free speech? Evelyn Beatrice Hall had it right

  1. Tamara says:

    I very much enjoyed your post, and blog in general. Very insightful.

    I completely agree with you that one shouldn’t pertain double standards over free speech, especially when someone holds a skewed view that differs from your own morally sound opinion. However, even though free will and free speech is integral to democracy within western culture, it is not without laws and regulations to assist in the prevention of such people acting upon their irrational and hate fueled views. So, in relation to the incident in the grave yard, surely a slap on the wrists for disturbance of the peace or trespassing would sort him out. Without infringing upon his free will; because as you so rightly pointed out, there is a time and a place.

    So in short, I don’t think free speech is something to be contended with when referring to a man like Phelps, I think there are other laws that are either in place, or should be in place to prevent him from upsetting the general public.

    • There certainly are laws in place to protect our rights, but they relate to inciting hatred; incitement being the mitigating factor. As I understand it, Phelps was not encouraging others to join his cause, or follow his lead, he was stating his view, as repellent as it may seem. There are no clear grounds to find cause for incitement in his action; which is the crux of the legal question. This would suggest that Phelps, as incongruous as it may seem, did indeed have the right to express his view at Matthew Snyder’s funeral.

      The ‘time and place’ I refer to is one which is regulated by ourselves, and our sense of restraint and commonality. These are traits that Phelps unfortunately seems to lack; rather he has a staggering inability to recognise the indecency of his actions. And I say indecency rather than illegality, as that is the case in point.

      ‘Upsetting the general public’ is too wide a banner to justify banning or restricting expression or demonstration; as we may all subscribe to views which could offend any number of people, as is our right to do so. Without wishing to sound like I am defending Phelps, as I am loathe to do so, I understand why the law found in his favour, when the summation of facts is taken into account. So, whilst Phelps is a poor example of a decent human being, in a pluralistic and democratic society, the same laws that protect us, also protect him.

  2. Tamara says:

    I believe that in America where Phelps resides, he is, unfortunately protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution. Whereby no law can impede the free exercise of freedom of speech/ religion; so your point on that matter is correct. 

    However, in your argument you suggest that this same overarching constitution extends to the whole of the western society, i.e. UK. 

    While within the UK, the Human Rights Act does protect our civil liberties and our ability to view our opinion so freely. We, unlike America, also have a Public Order Act, which states that if a person is causing alarm or distress within a public area, it is in fact, an arrestable offence. Therefore had Phelps been doing his bidding for human indecency in the UK, he would have been reprimanded accordingly.

    Which brings me back to my original point that there are laws in place to protect us from knob heads like Phelps disturbing the peace, if he were ever to set foot in the UK. 

    There is no denying that a large portion of the US population are small minded hicks; it is obvious that there is a plethora of differing mindsets from what we would deem decent. However, I don’t think the mitigation should not be that of civil liberties but toward changing attitudes and introducing laws that endorse the freedoms of certain minority groups.

    • You raise some valid points, however I cannot agree that the law ‘unfortunately’ protects Phelps. As much as you and I may disagree with his opinions and intentions, he is still entitled to protection of these views, certainly in a legal capacity.

      I discuss Phelps in relation to US law as his actions are subject to that jurisdiction – the UK incidentally, has no formal written constitution. I do not suggest that the ‘overarching constitution’ of the United States encompasses the United Kingdom; as you correctly point out, the UK is subject to different laws and protections; however the essential point of both remains the same.

      The ultimate question concerns what one may find offensive, and what one may view with a laissez faire attitude; this is where the difficulty in mandating individual speech arises. The Human Rights Act which you cite, is in fact, a UK extension of the European act of the same name. This act, amongst other features, protects free speech and expression:

      • freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to express your beliefs
      • freedom of expression
      • freedom of assembly and association

      In light of the above, if in a theoretical instance, Phelps visited the UK and expressed his views thus, the Human Rights Act would protect him accordingly, as his actions lack in clear incitement. His demonstration at the Snyder funeral was not an attempt at indoctrination, merely an expression.

      Again, I am pains to point out that I do not support Phelps’ view, but recognise that however hateful the view, it has a right to be expressed; if in expressing it the rights of others are not denigrated. Your right to take offence is similarly not infringed upon.

  3. Tamara says:

    I do not disagree that people who have differing views from myself such as Phelps are not entitled, and do not have the right to be protected by the same laws as the rest of us. However this is not the base of my argument. 

    I apologise that I did not articulate myself better; when I said that you had insinuated that the ‘constitution’ spanned across both of our fair nations. I did not mean this literally. I was addressing your misguided judgement regarding the judicial systems of the UK and US, and the right to free speech. In the US, the state/ government cannot introduce laws that impede a persons right to free speech as part of the constitution.

    However in the UK, while we are protected by the rights cited in the Human Rights Act, those are to be practiced in due diligence. As aforementioned; in the UK we are also protected by The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which states:

    154. Offence of causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress etc. to be arrestable 

    155. Offence of racially inflammatory publication etc. to be arrestable.

    (cited directly from The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994)

    Phelps was protected by the US courts, as he was within his rights to do shout at that persons funeral 

    In the US, Phelps was within his constitutional right to barrage those at the funeral without fear of amerce. However had Phelps been doing the exact same thing in the UK he would have been appropriately admonished, as he would have been contravening The Public Order Act, by which he was intentionally causing alarm and distress.

    So to summarise, while both the US and UK have laws in place to protect our right to free speech, there is a stark contrast as to the levels in which we can do so without being reprimanded. 

    Which is probably why we are all so PC in UK.

  4. That’s exactly what was lacking: simple humany decency. Still, in reverse, I suppose that’s like saying shouting angrily at racists is really inappropriate. Having lived in Brighton a while ago when a lot of racist demonstrations took place (in a curiosity hippy-yet-not town) people get angry. From their POV we must be incredibly rude perhaps.

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