Defending the Undefendable

Freedom requires tolerance. That principle will be put to the test today as Americans respond to the Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps.

As Ilya Shapiro first noted below, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, with a thoughtful dissent by Justice Samuel Alito, upheld the right of Rev. Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell.” It is a mark of our liberty that in most cases we defend even the most despicable speech. And in that we stand in stark contrast to much of the world.

In truth, we should also defend most (but not all) despicable actions — short of those that violate the rights of others. But at least we defend speech, even though the line between speech and action is not always clear. But here, the Court set forth the issues carefully and correctly, examining the content, form, and context of the speech as revealed by the whole record — none of which is to say that governments cannot regulate the time, place, and manner of speech under content-neutral provisions. But as Chief Justice Roberts concluded, “As a Nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

By contrast, just today the New York Times reports that Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot dead as he left his home this morning. His sin? He opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, despite threats to his life by Islamist extremists. And only two months ago the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot and killed by one of his guards for speaking out in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Tolerance is all too rare around the world, but it is the foundation of liberty. We’re fortunate to live in a nation whose Founders implanted that principle in our Constitution.