The Difficult Blessing of Free Speech

One of our traditionally cherished American liberties is that of free speech.  Part of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the wording is agonizingly brief.  

To be not quite as brief, it means that it is better to put up with someone else that you may disagree violently with than it is to forbid them to speak.  It is better for me to suffer listening to someone else, than it is for that person to suffer by being barred from expressing themselves.  After all, the hearer has the option, most of the time, to walk away, change the station, or tune out.  The person expressing themselves may have no other means of expressing their viewpoint.  And it just might be that what they need to express is hugely valuable and important and necessary, even if I don’t understand it or agree with it.
Free speech has received a growing bad rap, however.  Consider the Westboro Baptist Church.    It is astounding that by and large one extended family has done so much to make people debate whether free speech is actually a good thing.  I disagree passionately with their tactics and a their theology.  But I do not seek to prohibit them from speaking.  They have a right to be heard.  And I value that right, even though I have to listen to them at times, because that right means that I have a right to be heard as well.  By moving to limit their right to free speech, I actually compromise my own right to free speech.  
So it is disturbing to hear the arrogance of those who would abolish free speech – either legally or through public intimidation and the threat of real harm.  The threat of property damage and defamation.  A group of anonymous computer hackers known as Anonymous have issued just such an ultimatum to the Westboro Baptist Church.  Shut up, or be made to suffer for exercising your Constitutionally protected right to express yourself.  Submit yourself to what we deem to be proper and acceptable, or we will hurt you.  
Ironic that Anonymous claims to be the “Voice of Free Speech”, which seems by definition to be problematic or even contradictory.  Free Speech already has a voice – it’s the Bill of Rights.  “Advocate of the People” clearly is not an inclusive title, but rather limits itself to advocating for some people and against others.  
Yes, Westboro is truly a misguided group of people who have smeared the name of Christianity and the Bible and Jesus Christ by their thoroughly misguided interpretations of and adherence to the Bible.  I certainly would be happy to dialog with them theologically in an effort to try and demonstrate what I see as their errors – if I thought that would do much good.  But threatening them to shut up, threatening them to not exercise their Constitutional rights for fear of harm is a good solution.  It’s a very, very dangerous solution.  It is essentially bullying.
And while bullying is being highlighted as a great evil when applied to darlings of special interest groups and agendas, I’m sure that it will be just as quickly ignored by those same groups that claim to champion the underdogs and the misunderstoods.  We need to remember the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (misattributed to Voltaire) I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.  

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