Sunday, March 20, 2011

Protecting 'Speech' We Do Not Like: Westboro Church and First Amendment

From time immemorial ever since one man spoke his mind there was another to tell him where to stop. Censorship of human thoughts has a very long shameful history. Even today in many parts of the world, including democracies, censorship is often practiced. Religious establishments and governments are the most abusive powers in curbing free expression of thought. Censorship often takes very devious forms. Not many in Tamil Nadu know that even today to stage a drama one has to get police permission and get the dialogues approved. Its a statute that dates to the British rule and as is often the case the new 'rulers' found it useful enough to retain it. Indian government controls paper supply to newsprint and can throttle the industry by taxes. When the US constitution was ratified in 1789 some felt that the freedom to practice religion and to express one's opinion was not protected enough in the constitution. So a set of 10 amendments, collectively referred to as 'Bill Of Rights' was proposed. 

The 'First Amendment' is the one, which Americans of all political stripes, cherish the most. As far as my knowledge goes America was the first country to write such an amendment that expressly "LIMITS" the power of the legislature. The amendment, succinctly but with shining clarity, states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The Congress is expressly prohibited from making ANY law that would abridge the exercise of free speech. Of course such lofty sentiments were to be found in many other constitutions in ambitious democracies that followed but none came close to empowering them like the USA. The legal system has been the most robust in protecting this clause. Of course anybody could point to some blemish here and there but none can deny that America remains the most free country on earth. 

That America is involved in two wars in common knowledge. To many outside India there is an unknown side show. A church congregation, comprising almost only family members, made it their business to go and attend funerals of soldiers who were killed in Iraq. One of the leading killers of soldiers in Iraq was the I.E.D (Improvised Explosive Device). These church members would go to funeral grounds and hold signs that said "God bless the IED's", "This is God's punishment for USA tolerating gays" and other most despicable fundamentalist nonsense. Slowly they started getting attention and congressional representatives, in sympathy with the families of fallen soldiers, proposed legislation that would restrict such protests by making them stand hundreds of feet away etc. Finally the father of a dead soldier filed a lawsuit that such protests were an infringement on his freedom. The case wound its way to the US Supreme Court.

The US Supreme court does not routinely hear every petition that comes its way. This case was taken up as a challenge to the First Amendment rights of the Church. While no newspaper editor agreed with the Church's philosophy or protests everyone without exception wanted the Court to protect the rights of the Church. In a stunning 8-to-1 verdict, with 8 justices ruling for the Church and one dissenting, the US Supreme court resoundingly protected the freedom of the Church. 

The case of "Hustler" (a pornographic magazine) Vs Jerry Falwell is a more difficult case. Hustler had published a fictional story about Jerry Falwell's, a well known preacher, first sexual experience. The story involved his mother. Anyone would agree that this is outrageous. Anyone, however much they disagreed with Falwell, would sympathize with him asking for damages. Not so fast. The US supreme court ruled unanimously, in the case of 'Larry Flynt Vs Falwell', "that the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them." The verdict could not have been more resounding in favor of free speech than that. Read that again, it excuses such acts even its "intentionally inflicted" upon a 'public figure'. Even today its impossible to print disparaging articles about the royalty in England. 

It is this freedom that protects an artist who puts up in a national gallery a painting that depicts a crucifix in a jar of urine or another painter who paints the Madonna with cow dung on her breast. Rudy Guiliani, as Mayor of NYC, wanted to cut the government funding to those galleries, of course that effort went nowhere. Muslims in Britain took umbrage at Salman Rushdie for "Satanic Verses", many were immigrants from Pakistan, without understanding western ethos or that such freedom is the cornerstone of modern liberal democracy. Before anybody accuses Britishers of apathy towards Muslims let them remember that it was a British novelist, Philip Pullman, who published to much acclaim his book titled "The good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". Pullman, with tongue in cheek, had a disclaimer in the back flap "this is a story".

Freedom of speech includes the responsibility to protect speech that many, or even one, would deem spiteful. Whether its a newspaper publishing secret papers of government (the Pentagon Papers case) or a pornographer publishing an abusive story of a pastor, or a questionable work of art that is exhibited time and again the US Supreme court and other arms of the judiciary have been zealous in protecting that most cherished right of an American, to speak his/her mind.

Michael Douglas playing the role of an American President in the eponymous movie would say " America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".

1 comment:

இலவசக்கொத்தனார் said...

/"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. /

Aravindan, very interesting!