March 9, 2011
The headline was positioned prominently on page one just below the fold in the center of the page: “First Amendment Protects ‘Hurtful’ Speech, Court Says.” The story discussed the result and a bit of the reasoning of the Judges in the Westboro Baptist Church case in which some of its members picketed a funeral to publicize their message. “Fags hate God” and “Don’t Worship the Dead” are among sentiments, often obscure expressed on posters they recently carried before the White House in DC. The grand classical façade with its four Ionic columns fronting the lawn and sidewalk looked supremely pure in contrast with colorful signs like “God is America’s Terror.”
This independent church certainly understands the power of the media to internationalize a message. They are great fodder for a slow news day (no dictators beheaded, oil not yet $5 / gallon) and sardonic comment by caption writers: “Reasonable Discourse” it says under the photo of the posters quoted above. It may be that “God is America’s Terror” or that the inverse of this phrase is closer to the truth. Future years even may learn that the church was a front organization meant to cheapen discourse, coarsen feelings and destroy civility, as many television programs and political campaigns do.
Though unaddressed, this case is partly about decay of thought expressed in squishy language. Try hunting for “hurtful” in dictionaries published before 1985. The words harmful and injurious have long provenance; insulting, wounding, cruel and vulgar all have well-established meanings and patterns of use. “Hurtful” means, well, it’s like “concern” used as a noun or “impactful” used as an adjective or in a verb form. Hurtful is a bit foggy hinting at its relation to political and social trends including the gradual erosion of reason by the ‘feelings’ of readily wounded groups whose sensitivity reflects the desire of government to compensate them with various emoluments. Such largesse, for some, confirms the government’s ‘compassion’ and power to punish thoughts and opinions for the sake of ‘diversity’ and other political code words.
“As a nation we have chosen…to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. That’s good, but one of the large questions this begs is how speech is protected when getting oneself heard or seen (those fifteen seconds of fame or ‘face time,’ the last vestige of identity) depends upon becoming a ‘character’ or conforming to the constricted fault lines of ‘fair and balanced’ opinion. But perhaps ‘access’ is the domain of concentrated media cartels enmeshed with diplomatic and intelligence echelons, major foundations and universities.
Speech is protected, or at least ignored, when it accords with the dominant tendency or is marginalized by the major constructors of public, that is, virtual reality. Dominant trend replaces moral tradition or consensus on what is acceptable when a culture breaks down into ossified formula of obligation that soon become arbitrary means of punishment or reward. One principle is clear for several decades: if a group is vulgar or obscene in proclaiming an anti-life agenda its free speech rights will be protected and acclaimed. If you parade with banners or speak to microphones with statements like “the default for mankind is hell,” or “kill a fetus for gay Jesus” chances are good that the mass media will amplify your slogan. There is little difference between such ‘discourse’ and stadium-rock spectaculars with inter-galactic bitch-goddesses backed by a power band and scores of sheeted goblins imitating, perhaps, the aliens we are meant to become and in part already are: alienated from each other, from good and simple life, from public honesty…
Please excuse this archaic word and concept once accompanied by readily understood behaviors. Honesty was lacking, on many levels, when the Commander-in-Chief flubbed the oath of office. The next day, the Justice administering the do-over also flubbed it. They would not have done so if there was a media who cared or a public that held a genuine franchise. Law is a joke except when it’s time to punish an ‘evil-doer’ who exists to maintain the illusion that ‘we are a nation of law’ in the traditional sense or to create a precedent for expanding the power of the State and its allegedly therapeutic Caesarism.
The Dean of a large law school was quoted to the effect that the core of the First Amendment is to protect speech that might be offensive. And there was a brief but intense, one might almost say concerted flurry of such received ideas when this ruling was issued. ‘We’ are vigorous in protecting offensive speech when it is vulgar, foolish or directed at proponents of less enormous government. Protection of speech like most other things in these days have fallen prey to the Mad Hatter’s view of language: “words mean whatever I wish them to mean” for “the only question is, ‘who is the master,’ that’s all.” Thus one gets an era of broken trust and growing fear spinning around an increasingly arbitrary application of power and increasingly flexible interpretation of law. There are plenty of fierce blond prosecutors on the Malarkey hour to model this and explain it to ‘the people.’
Once upon a time there was a journalist who did not follow the dominant tendency; he criticized, in opinion columns in a daily newspaper many of his era’s reigning fictions from abortion on demand, the politicizing of education and degrading of the status of fathers in ‘family courts’ and men in advertising to the slant of coverage, the fog about the role of Western powers in the Balkans and Middle East. He lost his position teaching at a State university after enduring several incidents of harassment and repeated demands by colleagues for his non-renewal because of the views he articulated in the public forum. Colleagues stalked up and down outside his classes while he was teaching; they leaned over and berated him while he was trying to eat lunch. Two years after he was non-renewed (lost his position), his column, though it brought intelligence and independent thought to an otherwise dull and univocal page, was terminated.
The ACLU took up his cause pro bono because “it was a classic and clear violation of 1st and 14th amendment rights and academic freedom.” After some months and despite this view of the case, it transpired that there was a condition to their assistance, that the State Teachers’ Union, that had failed to protect him during the stages of his harassment, not be named in the suit. Why not; who knew; that’s just the way it was, take it or leave it. What could he do but agree having considerably less resources than the State and pinned to its blacklist? They don’t like McCarthyism, that’s hateful! One must not expose Communists or other world government types, only their critics or other’s who are diverse in incorrect ways.
The ousted Professor had received more than a half dozen detailed evaluations of his teaching from the Chairman who, acting on communal consensus of the faculty group mind, did not renew his contract, The evaluations of his teaching, assistance of students, use of nearly every student comment to build up a discussion ranged from very good to excellent. But if one writes for an opinion page, one’s views must not disturb the collectivity of obedience. One must not crack the crust of cliché or make people think; ‘liberals’ might begin to recognize that they are intolerant and punitive.
The Chairmen of his Department admitted, in his deposition and to a newspaper reporter that the Professor-journalist was let go because of repeated demands by his politically outraged colleagues. But when the matter finally arrived in court, almost four years later, the deposition and article were said to be inaccurate. The Chairman, having let them stand up to that point corrected them on the stand and no one mentioned perjury or fraud. Having tidied up these potentially embarrassing inconsistencies, he proceeded to make a speech lauding and equating professors and judges: “both of them wear robes and both make the laws by which society functions.” Some observers thought the flattery was so blatant and extreme that it would hurt the Chairman: not so. Expected or not, apparently the speech was welcome.
Then the attorney for the defense went on the offensive. Working his way to a corner of the jury box, he delivered a high volume speech in the form of rhetorical questions. The fact that the dismissed professor answered “no” or “no, that’s not true” to the barrage of leading questions did not impede the flow of invective. In “Perry Mason” or similar shows, these are the times when the other lawyer jumps up and says “I object; my fellow attorney is berating the witness, judge” or, “my fellow attorney is leading the jury, your honor” but nothing of the sort occurred. The abuse continued until the judge said, “that’s enough, counselor,” dismissed the jury and told the parties to return in two days. When they did, he dismissed the case of the plaintiff, the professor who was foolish enough to write opinion pieces that were cogent but not “hurtful.” Curiously, when the State had tried to get the suit thrown out previously, the judge had said it had merit and should proceed. Apparently he changed his mind. Perhaps the speech about robes did it. Perhaps the ‘conservative’ views of the columnist had something to do with it. His civil liberties attorney blamed him for losing the case but that’s common: one of the first courses law students take teaches them to blame clients for their failures.
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The moral of the story is that one must learn to be “hurtful” rather than “scary, hateful or divisive,” terms reserved for critics of the regime. Standing by a funeral with signs about hell for dead soldiers makes good copy, is rudely semi-coherent and comforts leftist stereotypes about religious kooks. Just don’t make them think about the contradictions and cruelty in their mental reflexes or how they “think to order” the media-implanted notions that keep them comfortable as the nation goes to hell.
Eugene Narrett’s recent book is Culture of Terror (www.authorhouse.com 2009)
Brent Kendall, “First Amendment Protects ‘Hurtful’
Speech, Court Says,” Wall Street Journal, Thursday
March 03, 2011, A1-2
2, S.A. Miller, “Westboro lawyer: Obama, Supreme Court Going to Hell,” New York Post online, Sunday March 06, 2011
3, Wall Street Journal ibid
4, WSJ A2
© 2011 Eugene Narrett - All Rights Reserved