Camus famously remarked that by age 40, every man has the face he deserves. Fred Phelps is considerably older than 40, and his face has been startlingly disfigured by constant, hateful yelling. He looks like evil Gerald Ford, or possibly the alien from Enemy Mine. Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church,* a small congregation in Kansas that has drawn national attention for its protests at the funerals of Iraq War veterans, Elizabeth Edwards, and anyone else that might draw attention to their message, which is pretty much that God hates everybody. “You cannot preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God,” Phelps is fond of saying. His essential contention is that, because the United States tolerates homosexuality and abortion, everything bad that happens is God’s punishment and should be praised. He’s what theologians call a complete asshole, and his indecent, message-free publicity-mongering embodies all that is worst in protest. Earlier this week, Phelps announced Westboro’s intention to protest the funeral of Christina Taylor-Green, the nine year-old girl shot by Jared Loughner during his attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. That’s why the Arizona legislature quickly passed a law yesterday banning protests at funerals. It’s also why I’m making this rueful face when I say that they shouldn’t have done that.
Just to make my position clear and also because I enjoy saying it, Fred Phelps is the reason it sucks to live in a liberal democracy. His congregation is composed almost entirely of members of his own family, and his attempts to spread the “message” of his church argue compellingly for the opposite position. He claims to be committing his series of egregious acts in order to draw attention to the word of God, but he is obviously motivated primarily by the desire to draw attention to himself. It is a testament to Americans’ weary familiarity with assholes that he has not been physically attacked. At the risk of hyperbole, he may be the worst human being in the world.
Yesterday, he agreed to not yell out the word “fags” during a nine year-old murder victim’s funeral in exchange for airtime on two radio stations. He’ll still protest the funeral of District Court Judge John Roll, though. The obvious indecency of his plans, combined with his announcing them in advance, prompted the Arizona legislature to establish “funeral protection zones,” where protest is prohibited within a 300-foot radius for an hour before and after memorial services.
“They want to protest at the grave site of a 9-year-old girl, and we want to stop him,” said state Senator Paula Aboud, shortly before judging a singing and dance contest. It’s a plain assessment of the situation, and it neatly encapsulates why there’s something wrong with Arizona’s response.
First of all, American legislatures should not be in the habit of passing laws to prevent particular people from doing particular things. Phelps is one of the best arguments against the First Amendment in recent history, but I still don’t think he holds up. Had Westboro not made public plans to ruin a child’s funeral in an attempt to convince more people to hate gay dudes, Arizona probably would not have passed this law yesterday. That makes it uncomfortably close to a bill of attainder.
Second, it’s an old saw, but the American tradition of freedom of speech exists precisely to protect the speech we find most reprehensible. We don’t need a Constitution to protect what the majority of people see some reason to defend, and I defy you to find one person not named “Phelps” who would defend what Westboro does. Probably, that’s an argument that preventing them from protesting won’t harm the larger American institution of free speech. As a fanatical devotee of that institution, however, I would rather not take the risk.
I can see no way in which Fred Phelps is right about anything. Without drawing a parallel between the two men, though, there was a time when no one could see how Galileo could be right, either. As a society, we have determined that speech is a tool, whose value abides independent of who might wield it and for what purpose. We have opted to care for our tools and keep them sharp, because we might need them later. I don’t like Fred Phelps, and I hope his car breaks down on the way to Arizona, preferably outside a hair salon or a Gold’s Gym. I will defend the tool he abuses, though. His project is disgusting, but our condemnation should be directed at the carpenter, not the hammer.