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civil liberties and the Westboro Baptist Church

Being a civil libertarian often means sticking up for the rights of assholes. People espousing popular opinions don't need protection, and even those expressing unpopular views can sometimes do so without harassment if they've got a bit of charisma. It's the people whose ideas and personalities both nauseate us, who test our commitment to freedom.

Thus it is that, despite the fact that it makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit to find myself taking their side, I have to speak out against the violence, false arrest, and harassment directed at members of the Westboro Baptist Church -- Fred Phelps's gang of "God Hates Fags" idiots -- in Brandon, Mississippi.

According to the linked report, one member of this group was assaulted, and despite a number of witnesses, "no one seemed to remember anything about what had happened." Vehicles with Kansas license plates were barricaded in a hotel parking lot, and the police delayed towing the blocking pickup trucks; and members of the church were detained for several hours for questioning without probable cause.

There is no doubt that Phelps and company are sad excuses for human beings. Their tiny hearts are full of ignorance and fear and hate. But one cannot beat ignorance or fear out of a man. The cowards (and yes, these were cowardly acts) who assaulted the WBC demonstrator, who allowed that assault to happen without consequence, and who used police power to harass them, almost certainly only strengthened the convictions of these asshats. I'll bet you five dollars that, in the days since this incident, at least one of them has quoted the bit from the Bible about "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

The military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan supposedly died to protect freedom. (We'll leave aside for now the question of the real cause for which they were sent over, and the actual effects of their presence.) To then deny freedom of speech to Americans is no way to honor their legacy. Yes, Phelps's message is odious, offensive, disgusting, and hateful. But the funerals of agents of the U.S. government who were killed in carrying out that government's foreign policy are occasions calling for the greatest First Amendment protection.

There is no patriotism in assault, censorship, or false arrest, and I ask those of my friends who seem to be delighted with this incident to pause and seriously consider the nature of freedom.


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