Friday, March 11, 2011

The Folly of Constitutional Fundamentalism: How American Politicians Pervert the Meaning of Freedom

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the funeral protests of the Westboro Baptist Church were constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. While this verdict drew cheers from politically correct elitists on both sides of the ideological spectrum, wiser Americans ought to rise above the ruckus and realize the dangers of the High Court’s decision.
The First Amendment 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.” From a strict libertarian perspective, the text of the First Amendment could not be clearer: No law means NO law.

However, every rule exists for a reason – and laws that defy human reason have no right to exist. To paraphrase the words of James Madison, liberty may be endangered not just by the abuse of power, but also by the abuse of liberty. Protesting at military funerals with hateful signs thanking G-d for the deaths of American soldiers is one example of abusing liberty. And, as usual, it is interesting to note how those who hate America the most are always the first to hide behind its freedoms, to invoke our Constitution in defense of their despicable deeds.

Our First Amendment should apply to those who believe in the Constitution, to those who love and cherish the United States. It should not apply to neo-Nazis, to America-haters, to terrorist sympathizers, and to those – like Jeremiah Wright – who curse our great land. Granted, carving out categories of prohibited speech is a dangerous thing. The government is not in the business of evaluating different kinds of speech to determine which ones are acceptable and which ones aren’t.  But there are certain utterances that carry absolutely no benefit to the public, and are so outrageous as to shock the conscience of the nation. Surely, enforcing extreme and literal interpretations of the law is just as bad as enforcing no laws at all. Surely, applying the United States Constitution to those who despise it – to those who cheer at the deaths of Americans – is insanity, pure and simple.

Fortunately, we already have laws regulating what can and cannot be said. It is illegal, for instance, to call someone at 3:00 in the morning in order to advertise the sale of crystal meth. It is illegal to shout fire in a crowded theatre. After all, reasonableness is the foundation, the sine que non, of civil and criminal jurisprudence. If we allow people to praise the deaths of our soldiers at or near the sites of their funerals, then what is to stop pedophiles from picketing outside rape wards and glorifying their dastardly deeds?

As Americans, we acknowledge that free speech is a wonderful thing; but there comes a point where the political correctness has to end and common sense has to set in. Politicians on both sides of the aisle like to sit in their ivory towers and pontificate that American freedom knows no bounds, that the First Amendment should apply even to the speech we despise in order for it to have meaning. Some argue that to apply the First Amendment selectively is to put the United States on the road to dictatorship. These well-intentioned fundamentalists say that a democratic society cannot allow politicians to police people’s utterances and determine which ones should and should not be permitted.

However, we would do well to remember the warning of James Madison, a warning that is worth repeating: Liberty may be endangered not just by the abuse of power, but also by the abuse of liberty.

Some of my readers may cry out with the popular children’s slogan: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Like most children’s slogans, however, this one is naïve and silly, for what may be true in theory is often false in reality. We would do well to remember that the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers and concentration camps. It started when one man was given the right to speak as he chose, when German newspapers began printing cartoons that compared Jews to mice, when hatred became tolerated. Thus, the Third Reich emerged not because of restrictions but because of unbridled freedom, because of limitless liberty, because a demagogue like Adolf Hitler was given free speech and free reign.

The philosopher Thomas Mann once opined that tolerance becomes a crime when applied to injustice. Sometimes, it is free speech that makes fascism possible. Therefore, curbing liberty in the name of common sense is the right thing to do, however unpopular it may be in the eyes of First Amendment fundamentalists. After all, too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing. We should be careful with deadly weapons, and – as history shows – words can be the deadliest of them all. 

RECOMMENDED READING: Justice Alito Was Right by William Murchison, American Spectator