Last week, Westboro made front pages everywhere for inspiring the right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court to quit crushing on corporations and for a change side with individual liberty.
If you missed the Snyder v. Phelps decision, take a gander (http://media.philly.com/documents/SCOTUS_Snyder_Phelps.pdf). Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative rock star, surely won some new fans on the left with his stirring defense of the First Amendment.
Message for the masses
The Supreme Court case concerned Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, killed in an accident while serving in Iraq. Six Westboro congregants gathered on public land near his funeral carrying signs reading: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Priests Rape Boys," and "God Hates America."
Snyder's father caught only a glimpse of the small spectacle but sued anyway, alleging defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He won millions of dollars from a sympathetic jury, only to see the ruling reversed.
The high court agreed with the reversal, reminding that Westboro's message - however malicious - was intended for the public and peacefully delivered.
"Simply put," Roberts wrote, "the church members had the right to be where they were."
Speech, he went on, "can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and - as it did here - inflict great pain."
"On the facts before us, 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."
Try, try again
Yet we try mightily to stifle, day after day, campaign after campaign. If I've learned anything in this job, it's that readers are never more certain of the superiority of their views than when trying to deny others the right to speak out.
I first experienced selective interpretation of free-speech rights years ago when my college newspaper ran an anti-Semitic op-ed.
As the editor, I faced demands to apologize. I declined, reminding ranters that the opinion page was a home for the free exchange of inflammatory ideas. The student body vice president condemned my defense of the offensive.
More recently, The Inquirer and I were sued by a once-notorious criminal objecting to any mention of his well-documented past. (We won.)
Last month, WPHT-AM (1210) host Dom Giordano grilled me about calling Cardinal Justin Rigali and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia "villains" for their handling of clergy sex-abuse cases. Even Giordano, who earns his living with words, blanched at that one.
But every once in a while, the public surprises me with silence.
Last week, I quoted a former legislator furious at lobbyists for defeating her bill to give child sex-abuse victims their day in court.
"That experience," she cried, "showed me that the Catholic Conference is a fierce, malicious lobby and that there is no separation of church and state."
I braced for howls but heard nary a peep. Credit the Westboro effect? Watching those fanatics, it's clear that intolerance is exhausting.
Reach me at email@example.com or 215-854-4670. Visit my Web page and connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.