Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What of Free Speech?

The curious case of Pastor Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

One of my favorite bits of all in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Babel Fish. It’s this leechy little thing you stick in your ear and it instantly translates anything said to you in any form of language.  The bit goes on to wax philosophical and historical, but finally ends with this quote: “...Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

See, we always assume that open communication and freedom of speech are good things.  That as long as we are all sharing our thoughts in open dialog, our society can grow.

But, as Pastor Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center and Douglas Adams have all demonstrated, not all speech is enlightening or ennobling.

Should there be limits on what you can say and when you can say it?  That’s been debated and argued for a long time.  There are some laws that govern what you can say or print.  These laws are referred to as the laws of Libel and Slander.

Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The curious case of Pastor Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, however, raises up some really interesting thoughts.  For example:  One of the reasons why so many people are so upset at both pastors is that most people disagree with them.  These small, minority religious groups are making a loud statement that most people don't like.  How many pastors, preachers, and prophets are out there saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself”?  Millions.  So, that’s not news!  Because we all agree.  If they started saying, “Kill your neighbor”, then we would be upset.  This, then, flies in the face of the value expressed by Voltaire.  Rather than defending their rights to the death, in spite of disagreement, we’re clamoring for them to be silenced, BECAUSE we disagree with them.  Even though most of us think they're idiots (myself included).

Another hopefully interesting observation: In our current political climate, both the right and the left are busy defining themselves by being the opposite of their opponents.  The right is the right because they're against what the left is for, and vice versa.

So far, it’s been generally the right wing that has been the most vocal about “preserving the rights in the Constitution”.  It’s also been the right wing that tends to be the most vocal about “respecting the military and the soldiers and veterans within it”.  It’s also those on the right that have been the most vocal about the “incorrectness of the homosexual lifestyle”, especially in the military.

So, here’s an issue where all of the conflicting points involved are essentially based in current conservative values.  It’s the right vs the right vs the right.  That makes it a little challenging for the conservatives.  Who to back?  This also brings up the same conundrum for the left.  Which side to choose?  Where to stand?  I wonder where the ACLU will land on this one!

A third observation, from a Mormon perspective:  A while ago, the left in Utah, and the ACLU in particular were up in arms because the church attempted to prevent anti-Mormon protesters from shouting down Mormon wedding groups that would gather for taking pictures on the temple lawn in downtown Salt Lake City.  Free speech was the word of the day. If the courts decide that it’s inappropriate and illegal to disrupt a private funeral service, will it then also be illegal to disrupt a private wedding celebration?

My own feeling is that we should be free to express our opinions.  We should also be held accountable for the results of the things we say.  So, in theory, I’m opposed to letting people disrupt the private moments of other people’s lives in order to further their own political agendas.  I also think that this concept should be applied universally regardless of the political leanings of those doing the expressing, or those being disrupted.


Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his Dutch Oven blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: Baking Dutch Oven Bread, Joyful Noises, A Call for Playtesters: LDS Scripture Game


  1. In both cases I feel they have been tried on the wrong grounds. These are not cases of "free speech" as the media (and the perpetrators) would have us believe, but clear cases of harassment, both psychological and religious. Both charges can easily be coupled with disturbing the peace.

    In the matter in Salt Lake, the courts let down the public by ignoring the very definitions of religious harassment, "Verbal, psychological or physical harassment used against targets because they choose to practice a specific religion," and disturbing the peace, "the unsettling of proper order in a public space through one's actions. This can include creating loud noise by fighting or challenging to fight, disturbing others by loud and unreasonable noise, or using offensive words or insults likely to incite violence."

    I have yet to see the ruling from the supreme court about the Westboro case.

  2. I always think or these 3 things before I speak:
    1. be sure brain is engaged before opening mouth.
    2. you will be judged by the standards you judge others.
    3. the freedom not to speak is the most important freedom of all.
    In other words: Do unto others as you would have done to you. You will only answer for yourself in the end, be ready.



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