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.

Advertisements