Burch: "Justice" or madness?

Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Michael R. Burch

The verdict is finally in. Eight Supreme Court justices are raging hypocrites. Or perhaps they’re become senile or suddenly went mad.

How will the new ruling that allows anti-gay lunatics and bigots to picket even the funerals of soldiers who died defending their country affect Nashvillians? Obviously, it means that our right to privacy even at the most solemn of moments has been lost. Now, no Nashville funeral on public ground is safe from people who want to make political statements or just blow off steam at the most inappropriate of times imaginable.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, speech may cause pain but, he ruled, “We cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” But this is not always true, since government employees have been fired (a severe punishment) for voicing racist jokes and slurs. Celebrities like Don Imus and Jimmy the Greek have also been fired for making racist remarks. Pedophiles and people who want to kill the president don’t have complete freedom of speech. Obviously, freedom of speech must have reasonable limitations.

Roberts went on to say that free speech is protected on public property. But courtrooms are public property. What would Roberts do if Fred Phelps (the Westboro Baptist Church leader overseeing the hatred) tried to exercise “freedom of speech” in his courtroom? Obviously, Roberts would tell Phelps to be quiet. If he persisted, Roberts would have him jailed for contempt of court. So would traffic court judges, if people started exercising “free speech” at whim.

So the question becomes: “Are traffic courts more sacred than the funerals of soldiers?” Of course not, and of course American judges routinely do exactly what eight Supreme Court justices just insisted cannot be done.

Classrooms are also public property, but we don’t allow students to exercise complete freedom of speech, or there would be chaos. Is the orderly conduct of a kindergarten class more important than the orderly conduct of a funeral? Obviously, both sorts of order are important: one for learning, one for grieving.

And what about the very citadels where American freedom of speech originates? Try exercising unlimited freedom of speech while Congress is in session. Chaos would reign and our government facilities would become towers of Babel if anyone could say anything at any time.

While freedom of speech is very important, so are order, decorum, propriety and privacy.

Is there a solution? Yes. Let people exercise their freedom of speech in church, outside city hall, on the Internet, in letters to the editor, etc. But not in highly inappropriate places such as courtrooms, classrooms and graveyards, where no one should ever speak out of turn.

Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary,” at www.thehypertexts.com.


45 Comments on this post:

By: yogiman on 3/10/11 at 11:34

Well, it looks like our inferior so called Supreme Court just made the most reprehensible decision in it's history.

Yes, there is a 1st Amendment to our Constitution ensuring one's right to free speech. But there are constructive ways of using those Constitutional rights called ethics: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Apparently those 'so called' church goers don't know the definition, which makes me wonder; What would be their reaction if a group of atheists, or church haters, entered their meeting place (I'm sure they call it a church) and began yelling at them for their stupidity of believing in God? Would they welcome them?

Maybe next time they commit their stupid act as free speech a group of vets can quietly take care of the matter under the 2nd Amendment as their right to self defense.

By: Mike Burch on 3/11/11 at 2:33

A pertinent question is whether such things as honor and human decency have any worth. I think most of us would agree that a traffic court is not more sacred than the funeral of a soldier who died defending his country. So if a traffic court judge can tell a protester to be quiet in court, or if a teacher can tell students to observe rules of order, it seems rather obvious that we could require rules of order at funeral homes and graveyards. People like Fred Phelps can have the right to speak freely, but not anywhere, at any time. That was the gist of my article. We can have free speech and rules of order, if we so choose.

Mike Burch

By: govskeptic on 3/11/11 at 5:33

From the publicity on this case you would think the protestors
were grave side, in fact they were over 1,000 feet from the
gravesite. In this decision the Court held that laws will be
upheld that hold these type protest to a reasonable distant
from the event., The same as have been upheld for
demonstrators at abortion clinics!

By: dargent7 on 3/11/11 at 5:40

Excellent editorial.
The dysfunctional morons over at the other paper, in true sociopathic fashion, actually support the Supreme Court's decision.
Those signs are "hate speech", which in NOT protected under the 1st Amendment.
SCOTUS lost me when they handed GW Bush the 2000 national election and sealed the coffin when they ruled corporations could "donate" and "contribute" unlimited money to their political affiliations, ie., Republicans.
And they sit in the front row during President Obama's State of the Union shaking their heads in a vulgar display of incivility.
These 9 are America's best and brightest?

By: Loner on 3/11/11 at 5:56

Excellent article, Mr. Burch.

This USSC decision seems to endorse anti-GLBT harassment and hate speech.

Back in 2007, the high court ruled that "bong hits for Jesus" was not an appropriate exercise of free speech. An 18-year old high school student, in Alaska, was suspended from school for displaying a 14 foot banner with those words scrawled across it...on a public sidewalk, not on school grounds. The kid's Dad sued the school board, under his perceived 1st Amendment rights. The school board won the case. Those words were not deemed to be covered by the first amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court's 6-3 majority: "It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use-- and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge,"

It seems reasonable for the USSC to conclude that this Baptist church's gay-bashing funeral-ministry is organized harassment and hate-speech directed at the GLBT community -- and that failing to act would send a powerful message that endorses all forms of gay-bashing and bigotry.

We citizens may now conclude that smoking pot and taking the name of Jesus in vain is far worse than depriving GLBT's of their civil rights and depriving grieving families of fallen US soldiers their right to privacy.

Indeed, one wonders what this high court is smoking in their private chambers.

By: house_of_pain on 3/11/11 at 6:01

A few counter-protesters should also show up, and exercise their 1st Amendment rights...right in the faces of these loony, hateful b@st@rds.

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 10:19

dargent7 said

"The dysfunctional morons over at the other paper, in true sociopathic fashion, actually support the Supreme Court's decision."

Uhh, count me as one of the "dysfunctional morons". Free speech is free speech. Do I like what Phelps and his merry band of mouthbreathers are doing? HELL NO!!! Is it despicable behavior that's only purpose is to draw attention? NO DOUBT!!! But as long as these douches are not breaking any laws........

The best suggestion I heard is that the families that are being protested should hire someone in a clown suit to dance around these yahoos while they protest just to show what type of a circus this really is.

By: treefrogdk on 3/11/11 at 10:29

loner, the USSC is blowing smoke up our private chambers. it's not even the good smoke!

By: treefrogdk on 3/11/11 at 10:30

btw... let's all send out good thoughts and/or prayers to the folks in Japan.

By: dargent7 on 3/11/11 at 10:34

As Loner pointer out, the student with the "Bong Hits for Jesus" banner got suspended.
Those funeral signs inflict "pain and suffering" on ME. The ACLU should sue Phelps and incarcerate the entire, mindless, emotionally vapid congregation.
This "1,000 foot rule" on public property is bullsh**t.
And the core group over at The Tennessean cannot get on the same page.
One day it's, "guns in bars", the next it's "Freedom of Speech", the next is, "mosques should be built on every corner in Tennessee", then it's, "the invasion of Iraq was a brilliant idea", then it's, "let's invade Libya"....(we need to save the Lybian peoples).
Like we had to "free the Iraqi people"....I really can't keep up with the south.

By: slacker on 3/11/11 at 10:40

One roundhouse kick from Chuck Norris, would solve the problem.

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 10:55

Look, the way I interpret any kind of USSC decision is based on how it affects ME.... not the personal ME, but the citizen ME.

If someone likes Phelps can have his right to free speech limited, then the same can be done to ME (or you), as a citizen.

By: slacker on 3/11/11 at 11:01

Chuck Norris would have Phelps speaking without a tongue.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 11:02

The truly pathetic thing is that they can harrass and continue their hate speech but if I spit in their face, I would go to jail.

This country is f'd up beyond belief.

By: yogiman on 3/11/11 at 11:07


I agree, the 1st Amendment guarantees us with the right of free speech. But what do you do in a courtroom when the judge tells you to keep your mouth shut? What is your response when you are told to shut up and sit down? Do you actually feel like opening your mouth when you know you are going to make a damn fool of yourself?

Freedom of speech is a certainty in our nation, depending on where you speak.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 11:10

"Do you actually feel like opening your mouth when you know you are going to make a damn fool of yourself?"

Well, that never stopped you before...

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 11:18

gdiafante said

"The truly pathetic thing is that they can harrass and continue their hate speech but if I spit in their face, I would go to jail."

It's the difference between "sticks and stones" and "words". And for what it's worth, I'm just not sure that what the Phelps group is doing rises to the level of "hate speech". And this comes from someone who 1)believes that there is such a thing as hate speech, 2)believes that there is such a thing as a hate crime and 3)has a few gay friends. I would think that one of the prerequisites for hate speech is that it has to be speech that would actually provoke someone into taking action against a specific group..... in this case gays. Frankly I can't see anyone (even the most ardent anti-gay person) taking the Phelps group seriously enough to go out and initiate an act of violence. Everyone know these guys are bat-shit crazy.... even the bat-shit crazies. :-)

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 11:26

yogiman said

"I agree, the 1st Amendment guarantees us with the right of free speech. But what do you do in a courtroom when the judge tells you to keep your mouth shut?"

Where in this scenario is your right to free speech limited? In this situation you have every right to open your mouth.... and you also have the right to face the repercussions of opening your mouth. Just like shouting fire in a crowded theater; you have every right to do it, but you better damn well hope that no one dies from the result of the shouting.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 11:27

"And for what it's worth, I'm just not sure that what the Phelps group is doing rises to the level of "hate speech".

Really? Here's a few sample signs from those maggots:

Thank God for dead soldiers
Semper Fi semper fags
Planes crash, God laughs
You're going to Hell
Fags doom nations

Yeah, no hate speech at all.

By: slacker on 3/11/11 at 11:33

brrrrk, Phelps and his group know exactly what they are doing. They are mean-spirited, attention seeking fiends, that are probably still surprised they haven't been retaliated against yet. If they keep it up, one day a truck load of good ole boys will beat the crap out of the arseholes.

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 11:37

One other point I'd like to make.... would this even be on the radar if it wasn't for the fact that these guys are showing up at military funerals?

And gd, of the five examples you gave.... only two come close to what I would call gay hate speech, those being:

Semper Fi semper fags
Fags doom nations.

The rest are just stupid.... and there's no law against being stupid, look around you.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 11:40

So first it was "nothing rises to the level", not it's "ok a couple of things they say could be hate speech".

It is and the USSC blew it, period. Personally, I'm not surprised.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 11:41

s/h/b now it's

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 11:53

gdiafante said

"So first it was 'nothing rises to the level', not it's 'ok a couple of things they say could be hate speech'.

It is and the USSC blew it, period. Personally, I'm not surprised."

Ok. first of all... I never said that I in anyway that I condone anything that Phelps and his group has said, but that I'll defend his rights to say it..... just as I'll defend your right to say anything you want within the confines of the law.

And secondly, I've watched two very close friends die from AIDS, and I've also stood up and defended the rights of gays in places that I've worked, so don't you dare get pissy with me.

By: slacker on 3/11/11 at 11:54

''Hate speech'' and ''Hate Crimes'' are politically correct expressions, designed to pander to specific groups. ''Fighting words'' is appropriate in a court of law.

By: gdiafante on 3/11/11 at 12:06

"so don't you dare get pissy with me."

Grow up, brrrk. So far all you are doing is saying "it's not hate speech because I know gay people, so I would know." Do you realize how that sounds?

By: yogiman on 3/11/11 at 12:45

I know it's a stupid question but: how do we know none of those irresponsible idiots in the "church group" aren't gay? Were they just jealous of the Soldier?

Ridiculous? Yeah. Impossible? No. So let's just call them queers.

By: Ingleweird on 3/11/11 at 12:45

While I enjoy the debate and discussion at hand, I have to disagree with Mr. Burch's assessment of so-called "freedom of speech" in this country. I think Justice Roberts's opinion flew right over Mr. Burch's head.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute freedom. It does not defend public or private employees from getting fired for making racist remarks, students from being suspended or sent to the principal for conduct at school-sponsored events, or courtroom participants from being found in contempt of court for speaking out of turn. I believe the Wikipedia article titled, "Freedom of speech in the United States" to be a decent primer regarding the extent of free speech in our country. Our "right to privacy even at the most solemn of moments" has not been lost; it wasn't there to begin with! In the blind eyes of justice, Mr. Burch, honor, human decency, and sacredness have ZERO worth. [Pardon that sentence; I'm sure Mr. Burch has worth!]

In this particular USSC case, Snyder v. Phelps, the father of the fallen soldier sued the Phelps's for punitive, compensatory, and emotional distress damages that he claimed were related to the picketing. The WBC claimed they had complied with local ordinances and obeyed police instructions, fought the ruling, and eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where the previously awarded damages were overturned. Don't blame the USSC; they were interpreting the Constitution as written and considering past court precedents. Only Congress can amend the Constitution.

Now, if we could just convince the WBC to picket in Detroit, MI, Gary, IN, or the Watts neighborhood in LA; I would be interested to see if the USSC believes they are entitled to "special protection" under the 1st Amendment after they get beat to a pulp, or if their language could be construed as "fighting words."...

By: dargent7 on 3/11/11 at 12:55

Boys: The signs those Phelps followers hold up cause me emotional pain.
I cannot believe someone hasn't sued them for the infliction of emotional pain.
I'm as anti-war as one can be, but I have 3 friends who are ex-Marines.
I worked with all three, two here in Nashville. Best co-workers one could have.
And they are my best friends, and if I ever needed a true friend, I could count on them.
No questions asked.
The SCOTUS are intellectuals who spent their entire lives in college, courtrooms, and now in their comfy offices making a half million a year. For life.
I lived close to Camp Pendleton in San Diego and Pearl Harbor on Oa'hu.
And know what real men and women are like. US soldiers and Marines.
Are they better than us college boys (myself included)? You bet.

By: brrrrk on 3/11/11 at 1:01

gdiafante said

"Grow up, brrrk. So far all you are doing is saying 'it's not hate speech because I know gay people, so I would know.' Do you realize how that sounds?"

I've put my own job on the line and have made myself a literal pariah among my fellow workers in order o protect the rights of gay workers. I'm personally responsible for preventing the firing of two individuals simply because they were gay. I don't just know gay people, I've stood up for their rights..... yeah, I know how I sound, and I know how you sound too. What have you done for the cause?

By: Ingleweird on 3/11/11 at 1:17

I just hope there is a throng of people at Fred Phelps's eventual funeral holding signs that say, "God Hates Fred Phelps!"

By: slacker on 3/11/11 at 1:53

brrrrk, who knew you worked for Anita Bryant? I'm putting you in for the Saint Sebastian medal.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/11/11 at 2:56

God will get Fred Phelps and family or just maybe he will do it to himself.

By: Antisocialite on 3/11/11 at 2:59

I'd like to voice my support for the Supreme Court's decision on this matter. Ingleweird and brrrk have already laid down the basics of the argument, which I usually like to summarize as:

You do not have the right not to be offended

The phrasing is a little awkward, but I feel that it succinctly conveys the message. If you desire a more poetic turn of phrase, may I direct you to Evelyn Beatrice Hall's summation of Voltaire's beliefs on freedom of thought and expression:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

By: Loner on 3/11/11 at 2:59

The NCP's server was down for hours; this has happened before, what gives?

One interesting aspect of the USSC decision in favor of the Baptist hate mongers is that Elena Kagan, outspoken crusader for GLBT rights, voted with the majority...Alito dissented....I am surprised by that.

I wonder if the high court would make a similar ruling if we were to take out the word "fags" and "gays" in the offending signage, and replaced those words with "Jews" and "Zionists". I think that blaming the wars' death toll on Jews and Zionists would not be protected speech...blaming it on fags and gays is protected speech.

By: Loner on 3/11/11 at 3:11

The fact that Pastor Phelps' church is still within the Baptist fold is quite telling, IMO. The official Baptist silence means acquiescence and support for a decidedly un-Christlike enterprise. The shame here is upon all sixteen million American Baptists who witness this hate speech and do not condemn it.

By: dargent7 on 3/11/11 at 3:14

Anti-S: Was that Thomas Payne or Ozzie Osburne?
The stuff they were saying in 1784 hardly rises to the occassion of the crap they're saying in 2011.
It's like the Second Amendment advocates: The musket is the same as a 9mm. Glock with a 30 round clip...no difference. "It's our right, God damn it".

By: Antisocialite on 3/11/11 at 3:23

dargent7 said:
The stuff they were saying in 1784 hardly rises to the occassion of the crap they're saying in 2011.

This is absolutely not true dargent7. There have always been crazy people out there willing to say anything for attention, even abhorrent things. I've always been a firm believer that these types of people and beliefs are best brought into the light so that the everyone can see how despicable, and morally bankrupt their positions truly are. Criminalizing anyone's speech is much more detrimental to our governmental process, and our citizens (even families that have been and will be picketed) than anything the Westboro Baptist church can say.

By: Loner on 3/11/11 at 3:29

On balance, I do support the USSC decision....with reluctance.

My complaint is that the USSC acted arbitrarily by condemning "bong hits 4 Jesus", while allowing "fags doom nations" and similar GLBT-bashing signage. They did a judicial flip-flop.

We the People can see that US Justice is not blind at all....it's OK to direct hate speech at grieving families and the GLBT community; but it is NOT OK to take the Lord's name in vain in some obscure message about Cannabis smoking.

In my opinion, this flip-flop decision is quite ludicrous and it contributes to the notion that all 3 branches of our federal government are dysfunctional.

By: treefrogdk on 3/11/11 at 4:04

well said, loner.

By: dargent7 on 3/11/11 at 4:30

If Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell wanted to come on tv, paid for by their own money, and say 9/11 was God's retrubution and retaliation for America's stance on homosexuality,...that's one thing. Turn the channel. Turn them OFF.
But these protestors have crossed the line. They are "in your face" and driving by, you cannot, NOT, read the signs.
I'm thinking of suing the bastards myself.
After all it's America...if Sarah Palin can make millions by quitting and going rogue, maybe I can make a few bucks by going slightly nuts.

By: Loner on 3/12/11 at 6:28

Thanks, Treefrog. I appreciate that.

By: Loner on 3/12/11 at 6:34

It appears that this Mike Burch article is not listed in the line-up for today's paper, as it was yesterday. I could not find it in the Archives section. I found this thread by going to my own PC's history for the link. I wonder if the editors pulled the story for some reason? Maybe it's just a goof-up.

By: Ingleweird on 3/12/11 at 12:23

Are you really surprised that Justice Kagan actually did her job and interpreted the law as objectively as possible?

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" (Morse v. Frederick) was a banner held by an absentee student across the street from the school, in plain view of a school-sponsored activity; that the banner demonstration occurred in plain view of the students on campus, undermining the school's anti-drug mission, played a pivotal role in the court's ruling. Also, the three dissenting justices in this case were liberal, while the majority were conservative. Perhaps a political bias? I wouldn't be surprised. I believe the dissenting justices have some damn compelling arguments, but alas, USSC rulings are determined by a simple majority. Do liberals have a greater tolerance for freedom of speech? The dissenters seem to support such an assertion. With the current Roberts Court believed to be more conservative than the Rehnquist Court, this debate is far from being definitively resolved in the near future.

All said, I see no evidence of a "judicial flip-flop," but rather different cases with different circumstances. In Morse v. Frederick, Roberts held that, "The constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings."

By: SeymourButz on 3/14/11 at 4:02

This is the inherent "hair splitting" that the "politically correct-constitutionally correct" pseudo intellectual "bravo sierra" will get you. What's next, will they uphold public lynchings or floggings as a form of "free speech?" Unfortunately the founders assumed that a "moral citizenry being necessary for the existence of the republic" would endure. This has certainly not been the case as these "anti-gay" abuses were promulgated by a fringe group posing as American's and much less as "Christians." The scriptures clearly teach that "thou shalt not go to the left or to the right" and these reprehensible actions by a lunatic fringe blaspheme the very God who they claim to represent through their hatred. It's in the same venue as Islamo-fascist killing innocent people for the very carnal paradise of 72 virgins. Religion is not the problems, its the people who practice it to their own destruction.