Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Trouble Isn't That People Are Ignorant

The Supreme Court has ruled, 8-1, that the Westboro Baptist Church has the right under the First Amendment to protest outside soldiers' funerals. According to Justin Elliott at Salon, Sarah Palin is among those who are outraged by the decision. She tweeted:
Common sense & decency absent as wacko "church" allowed hate msgs spewed@ soldiers' funerals but we can't invoke God's name in public square
Elliott's article is titled "Sarah Palin's bizarre view of the First Amendment," and over on his Twitter feed Glenn Greenwald asked: "Can't someone just sit down with Sarah Palin and slowly explain the First Amendment - what it does and doesn't do?"

Elliott went on to quote Palin's complaint from a radio interview in October 2008 --
If they convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.
-- and Glenn Greenwald's rebuttal:
The First Amendment is actually not that complicated. It can be read from start to finish in about 10 seconds. It bars the Government from abridging free speech rights. It doesn't have anything to do with whether you're free to say things without being criticized, or whether you can comment on blogs without being edited, or whether people can bar you from their private planes because they don't like what you've said.
As much fun as it is to make fun of Palin's aggressive misinformation, she's not the only American who could benefit from such instruction. Greenwald alludes, for example, to pundit Maureen Dowd's "equally stupid comment when she complained that her First Amendment rights were being violated by the McCain campaign's refusal to allow her on their campaign plane." Remember Juan Williams's dismissal from NPR for making some ill-considered remarks on Fox? I agree that Williams shouldn't have been fired, but it wasn't his First Amendment rights that were infringed. (If not being allowed to say whatever you want on TV violates your right of free speech, then I should be allowed to demand regular appearances on the O'Reilly Show, or All Things Considered, or the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times.) And as Elliott pointed out in passing, Palin's remark about invoking "God's name in the public square" refers to the Establishment clause of the First Amendment and "is really a separate issue," but on that issue too she has lots of company.

But it's not only the Right who want to be spared any criticism of their views, or any public expression of views that they dislike. In online debates I've often encountered people from all over the political spectrum who regard mere disagreement with their opinions as a violation of their freedom of speech. I've written before about atheists having hissyfits over Christian billboards, even expressing pleasure at the idea of burning down or defacing them. If antigay groups distribute antigay literature, many gay people want them silenced, not refuted.

It was liberal individuals who went to court some years ago to try to prevent official prayers during commencement ceremonies at my university, on the ground that they found such observance offensive; they lost, and rightly so. In this state, they probably would have lost even if they'd objected on the First Amendment ground that state institutions should not impose religious observance in its functions, but that would have been a stronger argument.

When a right-wing Christian professor at my university posted some viciously bigoted opinions on his blog, many gay students succeeded (briefly) in getting the university to shut down his blog, and went on to argue, unsuccessfully, that he should be fired. (At that time, anyone affiliated with the university -- students, faculty, staff -- was allotted disk space for their own web pages, so his blog was on a university server, though that meant the university as a state institution couldn't abridge his freedom of speech; the university restored his blog, but by then he'd moved it to another site.) The First Amendment? Hah! they snorted, the Constitution is just a piece of paper for rich white men -- but when, a few years later, there was talk of an amendment to the US Constitution that would ban recognition of same-sex marriage, some of the same people yammered that such an amendment would be unconstitutional. Which indicates that they were just as dumb in their way as Sarah Palin. Her understanding may be "bizarre," but I suspect that millions of Americans share it.

Some of the professor's gay critics claimed that the First Amendment doesn't protect hateful or offensive speech, which is false, as the Supreme Court's new ruling reminds us. I began browsing through the university-based web pages of several of those critics, and found quite a few with hateful and offensive content; I pointed out in a public discussion that if they got their way, they too would have to be silenced. That got a few nervous giggles, but none of them took it very seriously: they took for granted that they were the ones who would silence others, ignorant of how recently gay people had had to fight for their own First Amendment rights.

The American humorist Josh Billings wrote during the 1800s, "The trouble with the world ain't ignorance, its just that people know so much that isn't so." Ronald Reagan applied the quip to liberals, but as our right-wing friends show so abundantly, it applies to them too. Not that liberals or leftists are in any position to be complacent.