WASHINGTON -- I can call President Obama a pipsqueak, an idiot, a pretender, a Marxist Mau Mau. I can describe Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as a hack, a dummy or a liar. I can label former President George W. Bush a war criminal. I don't believe any of those things, but our Jeffersonian democracy allows me to write or say or scream those characterizations without fear of official retribution.
That's the liberty we celebrate in the First Amendment: an ironclad commitment to an individual's right to speak freely; to worship as he pleases; to peacefully assemble to mourn, to protest, to march. In civics classes, freedom of speech is explained as the cornerstone of the citizen's ability to confront his government.
Seldom do we reflect on the flip side of that great liberty: the protections extended to the loony and the hateful to parade about in public saying vicious and evil things. It's a lot harder to embrace that cherished freedom when it is misused by the malicious zealots of Westboro Baptist Church.
Still, the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in ruling last week that the Westboro bunch has every right to scream hateful rhetoric where it is most likely to give offense: as families gather to lay their loved ones to rest. Westboro founder Fred Phelps is incensed by the gay rights movement and its gains in the military, so he's taken his vile little road show to the funerals of dead sailors, soldiers and Marines, heaping insult upon sorrow.
In case you've missed news footage of their antics, the Westboro bunch gathers near churches and cemeteries, carrying signs such as these: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Fags Doom Nations" and "You're Going to Hell." Albert Snyder sued Phelps after Westboro members picketed at the 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. You can hardly blame family members for wanting laws to protect them from that spew.
But the freedoms afforded by the Bill of Rights are a bit more complicated than that, as Roberts suggested. Writing for the majority that rejected Snyder's suit, he said:
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain. ... We cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course -- to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood that agreeable speech doesn't need constitutional protections. There is a broad public consensus that protects the routine sprawl of protests that collect around the U.S. Capitol. Furthermore, preachers get to denounce gays from the pulpit; the New Black Panthers can rant about "whitey" in a public square; and Charlie Sheen can go on an all-media career-scorching rant -- all without encountering much in the way of public calls for censorship.
But there is widespread abhorrence of Phelps and his motley band of cowards, who verbally assault families already staggering under their grief. The Rev. Phelps stands the Bible on its head; he willfully contorts the teachings of Jesus Christ; he smears mainstream Baptists with his hateful antics. His tiny church, composed largely of family members, has few supporters. Theirs is the speech most in need of the First Amendment.
After the ruling, Snyder told Time magazine that he was "very disappointed in America." But if we are to celebrate ours as an exceptional nation, that's among the things that makes it different. No other nation, not even the other Western democracies, provides as strong a defense of unpopular speech.
Still, I have to reiterate the obvious: The fact that a tiny group of fringe lunatics has the right to vile rhetoric doesn't mean they are right. And the best way to combat them is with better speech -- or, in this case, louder noise. So I've a special place in my heart for the motorcycle club members who gather, revving their engines, to shield mourners from the Westboro fanatics. They, too, have rights.