“Sticks and stones …” aside, words and images do have consequences, perhaps never more than now when they are broadcast in real time.
It was the Supreme Court’s Charlie Sheen moment.
How else to explain the cockeyed jurisprudence that resulted in the 8-1 decision in “Snyder v. Phelps,” the court’s March 2 ruling upholding the right of Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church members to picket military (and other) funerals waving incendiary signs and even more incendiary words because they believe that dead soldiers represent God’s punishment of America for condoning homosexuality?
“Sticks and stones …” aside, words and images do have consequences, perhaps never more than now when they are broadcast in real time to audiences numbering in the billions, including some very unstable viewers and readers who should probably not be out in public carrying weapons. This has always been the case, going back to when the first cave family with fire in its possession dared its envious neighbors “to come and get it if your clubs are big enough.”
When, in 1170, England’s King Henry II mused out loud to no one in particular about his frustrations with Archbishop Thomas á Becket — “Will no one rid me of this priest?” — the knights who were listening did just that, murdering him in Canterbury Cathedral. When Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels urged Germans and Austrians to burn synagogues and beat and kill Jews in November 1938, it only took a few hours for those words to translate into blood in the streets. When President George W. Bush said, in response to a question about the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq — “Bring ’em on!” — al-Qaeda did just that.
The Roberts Court’s absolutist take on the First Amendment is nothing new. Both the “Citizens United” case (2010), which extended the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment to organizations, and “U.S. v. Stevens” (2010), which sanctioned the making and selling of crush videos of small animals, were precursors to this even more extreme perversion of justice.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes recognized the need to balance the right to free speech against other rights and societal interests when he pronounced that “the First Amendment does not mean that you can falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” in “Schenck v. United States” in 1919. In that decision, a unanimous court held that a law prohibiting anti-draft leafleting during World War I was a proper restriction of free speech. Invading and denigrating the Snyder family’s untold grief at their son’s funeral, as well as their right to privacy, anonymity and compassion without distraction at this most excruciatingly difficult time is deemed acceptable by the Roberts Court so long as the demonstrators are voicing concern about a public issue in a public place.
Naturally, academic intelligence is a prerequisite for sitting on the Supreme Court. Apparently, the other kinds of intelligence that well-rounded individuals — and even more so, judges — must have in order to do their jobs well and reach the right result in the cases before them, do not count for much. In this case, both situational intelligence and common sense were utterly lacking.
Regardless of the high-minded notion that judges decide cases according to the law and regardless of their personal views, we all know that is frequently a fiction (see “Bush v. Gore,” where without precedent the Court intervened to stop the Florida recount and decided the ultimate political question, which courts claim they avoid at all costs). I can only assume that the four Court liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) and four conservatives (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas) who trampled on the rights of the Snyder family to bury their dead Marine son with dignity were, at least in part, politically motivated. The liberals are in thrall to the American Civil Liberties Union (Ginsburg was an ACLU attorney), which defends the First Amendment to the point of hysterical absurdity, and the conservatives despise homosexuals.
I never thought that I would agree with Justice Samuel Alito the lone dissenter in “Snyder,” on anything. Here’s to you, Sam. Play it again.
Messenger Post, Canandaigua, N.Y.