I strive to be intellectually and morally honest with you, but there are some times when it's unbelievably difficult. Those are the no-win situations where your heart and your head battle for hours and days on end trying to get to something that resembles a compromise.
I came across one of those situations recently involving Rev. Fred Phelps. For those of you unfamiliar with Rev. Phelps, he heads up the church that goes around and protests the funerals of soldiers who died in the current Iraq War, saying God is punishing America for being permissive of homosexuality. Well, one of the parents of a slain soldier, Albert Snyder, is suing Phelps and his church for invasion of privacy after the church protested at Mr. Snyder's son's funeral.
Phelps and his lawyer are using a free speech defense in the lawsuit, claiming that the protestors were 1000 feet away from the church and down a hill where they wouldn't be visible. Personally, I find Phelps and his church to be utter scumbags on par with Larry Flynt for what they've done and the personal anguish they've caused over an unrelated point. Having said that, Phelps has a legitimate free speech claim to an extent.
That extent, ladies and gentlemen, is a concept in First Amendment law known as "fighting words." There are some statements that are designed to provoke a physical action or an emotional response. These words are called "fighting words" and may or may not qualify as free speech. So, Mr. Snyder should be on stronger ground, right?
Not so much. Mr. Snyder's invasion of privacy suit is on somewhat shaky Constitutional ground in that there is no express right to privacy in the Constitution. Courts have ruled we have a privacy right, but that doesn't mean it's there; it simply means the court believes it to be there. But given that there is a precedent for a "right" to privacy combined with the outlandish antics of the defendant and his followers, Mr. Snyder may be able to win this one.
But it doesn't make me feel any better. If the court rules in Phelps's favor, he will continue unabated and perhaps with even more vigor because a court justified his actions. As a human being, it offends me deeply and I can't abide by his actions or statements. If the court rules in Mr. Snyder's favor, it can be used as a model for how to shut off offensive speech. On the surface this may sound pretty nifty, but it can also be used to silence folks that someone else finds offensive, but you don't. As an advocate of free speech, I can't abide that happening, either. Defend a scumbag, or defend free speech.
Like I said, a no-win situation.