Wednesday Word of the Week: March 9

9 Mar

The Face of Profanity

This week’s word is: PROFANITY

Language that is offensive because it is rude or shows a lack of respect for God or religious beliefs – Macmillan Dictionary Online

One of the hottest news topics over the past week was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps. In a rare display of unity (other than Justice Alito, whose contempt for the Phelps family’s behavior created a resonant dissent), the Court ruled in favor of the members of the horrific bigot cult known as the Westboro Baptist Church. For anyone with a sense of humanity who is also an ardent supporter of free speech, this is an agonizing dilemma.

As we’ve noted on this blog before, free speech is a bedrock principle of this country and even people with distasteful messages have that right. From a strictly legalistic perspective, relying on significant precedent, Phelps seemed the most likely victor in this case. As Salon.com noted, however, there is an interesting, debatable point in the central argument put forward by Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion:

“The protest was not unruly. There was no shouting, profanity or violence.”

Westboro protests are notorious for adhering to the letter of the law. It is true that they do not shout (anymore) or practice physical violence. They also follow any local guidelines about protest and assembly assiduously. So far, so good. But no “profanity” in their protest? That is highly debatable.

Westboro is also notorious for signs that state baldly “God Hates Fags” or that bear cartoon depictions of anal sex (usually with the universal “no” sign of the red circle with a slash.) That is certainly rude and disrespectful. It is fairly clear from the majority opinion that the use of the word “profanity” really activates one of the slipperiest areas of free speech, that of OBSCENITY

Indecency, lewdness, or offensiveness in behavior, expression, or appearance. – American Heritage Dictionary Online

Obscenity is often not protected under the First Amendment. Are Phelps’ signs obscene? The Salon.com article does a good job of analyzing the legal issues here, and the most probable answer is “not quite” since courts tend to put pretty narrow walls around free speech exceptions. Enough uncertainty exists, however, that local jurisdictions wanting to put tighter controls on certain kinds of protests could probably construct laws that would restrict Phelpsian hate speech while not violating the First Amendment.

Freedom is tricky, and speech is one of its trickiest elements. There are clear exceptions (such as speech while on the job) and there are muddy areas like Westboro’s technically legal and morally abhorrent actions.  It is interesting to note the somewhat counterintuitive reactions to the decision. Former Phelps counter-protestor Romaine Patterson wrote a wonderful editorial supporting the decision. Some strict constructionists on the Far Right, however, have reacted against the ruling, typically lacking any sense of history or irony. NOM’s odious Maggie Gallagher rails against a ruling protecting hate speech, even though she is a regular practitioner of such speech. The perpetually confused half-governor Sarah Palin blasts the majority opinion and then backpedals confusingly.

In the end, I am deeply torn by this decision. I’m grateful that a conservative court did not take advantage of this situation to chip away at free speech. I truly believe that we must protect everyone’s speech or the freedom is illusory. Nevertheless, I find Westboro so repellent that any ruling which supports their actions – even tangentially – makes me ill.

Taking solace in the knowledge that democracy is hard, I’ll offer one word for Phelps and his ilk that is much less slippery than “profanity” or “obscenity”…

Extremely unpleasant or offensive – Macmillan Dictionary Online

REPUGNANT.

2 Responses to “Wednesday Word of the Week: March 9”

  1. combscp March 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Sometimes the right thing to do is also the hardest. By ruling in favor of Westboro, I do believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision. I hate to say that, but I believe that a different ruling would undermine our First Amendment. This reminds me of 1989’s flag-burning case, Texas v. Johnson. Brennan said it best, and it gave me a good starting point to write my own post in regards to this case!

    “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable… the way to preserve the flag’s special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong.”

    Great post, and I think you capture the emotions a lot of us feel about this.

    • webwordwarrior March 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

      Thank you! I’m glad that I was able to convey the tension that this decision created for me (and for many others).

      BTW, that is a wonderful quotation and one of the best distillations of this dilemma that I have seen.

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