When I was teaching political science at the Air Force Academy, I’d often talk about the importance of free speech and a free and adversarial press. Unlike our current president, I strongly believe that free speech is vital to liberty, and an unfettered and combative press is a crucial bulwark against tyranny. But rather than talk, yet again, about Mr. Trump, and his bizarre and dangerous indifference to a free press, I thought I’d talk about something local (Ed: really? Great!).
It seems that those odd folks from the Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, came to Manitou Springs to protest, well, something. There were only eight “church members” protesting, and over 50 local folks turned out to counter-protest. If you are not familiar with the Westboro crowd, they are worth a bit of time doing internet searches and watching videos. In short, everything you do is wrong, and you are all going to heck, because only this small, single-family-based cult, is going to heaven, according to this small, single-family-based cult. These are the same folks that protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers, waving signs that say, “God loves dead soldiers” and even more vile stuff. These are, to use the technical term, horrible people.
A recent column will shed more light on the folks from Topeka and their unusual set of beliefs. I’ll wait here while you read it. All set? Great! So, the question comes down to what should be done about groups like the Westboro Eight, and I’m delighted to say that our community seems to have reacted in exactly the right way — counter protesters preaching love.
It is difficult, when thinking about these folks, or other equally vile human organisms such as the KKK and the Nazi wannabes, to not demand they shut up and go home. But the goal of such individuals is to disrupt and get attention. They would love nothing more than for a city to reject their protest permit requests, so that they can go to court to claim the role of the oppressed. Indeed, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, now deceased, is the late Fred Phelps, a former lawyer who was disbarred for multiple offenses, causing the Kansas Supreme Court to note that Mr. Phelps, “has little regard for the ethics of his profession.” He did encourage his children to pursue legal careers, in hopes of advancing his intolerance through legal channels.
Which brings me back to the nice folks in Manitou Springs.
Rather than demand that the Kansas Eight (I’m trying to think of clever, yet seemingly demeaning ways to refer to them) hush up, they were met with love and, it seems, gentle good humor. This is, therefore, a wonderful example of the power of free speech. The cure to bad speech is very rarely imposing limitations. There are only a handful of such limitations accepted by courts, to include things like making a false claim in advertising (e.g., “the new Ford gets 8000 mpg”) and words that create (you’ve heard this phrase before) a clear and present danger. The Supreme Court has ruled, over the years, that such dangers must be very clear and very present. For example, the Court once refused a federal government request to prohibit, prior to publication, a magazine from publishing what it claimed were diagrams of the insides of a nuclear weapon. As a friend of mine, who refers to himself as a “nutjob libertarian,” often asks, can the problem be fixed with more free speech, rather than less?
And so we see, in our little corner of the world here in Colorado, both the challenge and the power of supporting free speech. We can be proud of our fellow Coloradans, who met hate with open arms, and never sought to squelch the rights of others. You see, issues like free speech may seem like national news, when for example, a president declares a free press to be the enemy of the people. But quite often, these vital tests of democracy end up happening in regular old communities around our nation. The test of free speech, I often told my students, is not when you loudly declare your agreement with a point of view. Rather, the true test comes when you defend the right of someone to say something you find deeply repugnant, vile, and un-American. I told my students about a quote, that I can not properly attribute, as I heard it secondhand, but which sums up the issue nicely: The best reason not to burn the American flag is because you can, if you want to.
The best reason not to shut down one “religion’s” speech is because we never want the government to tell us what we must believe or what me must not. Freedom can be a bumpy road, but it’s the best path toward a future built on liberty.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.