Fred Phelps, Asshole-ism and Free Speech

Quentin Boyer
In late October, a jury in Baltimore awarded the family of a deceased U.S. soldier close to $11 million dollars in their lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps and two of his daughters.

For those not familiar with the name, Phelps and his unhinged parishioners are the people who show up at funerals of American soldiers with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “America is Doomed” and other lovely, uplifting messages along those lines.

Put simply, Fred Phelps is — as Vice President Dick Cheney might put it — a “Major League Asshole.”

We often hear that adult entertainment is the vanguard of free speech – and that’s true enough, I suppose. Phelps and his ilk, though, push the free speech envelope further than does the adult industry, because unlike us, Phelps does not simply put his ideas out there for willing readers/listeners/viewers to encounter if they so desire. Phelps take his offensive, hateful, ignorant, maddening expression right to the people who are most likely to be offended by it — and to those who are likely to be most offended.

That said.… I believe the standard under which the claims of the lawsuit against Phelps went forward is unconstitutional.

I’m not qualified to perform the legal analysis myself, so I encourage you to check out the blog postings of UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh for a cogent and expertly-delivered argument as to why Phelps’ expression is protected by the 1st Amendment.

The legal question aside, I think there is a social imperative for us to put up with schmucks like Phelps, for reasons that have nothing to do with legal precedent. Phelps’ expression must be tolerated because above any other type of free market, what this world needs is a free marketplace of ideas – good, bad and/or ugly. We don’t need to be protected from stupid ideas, we need to confront them with smarter, better ideas.

When an idiot like Phelps spews his garbage, the best remedy is not to punish him under the law — it is to oppose him, verbally, blow for blow.

Instead of slapping him with lawsuits and dignifying his vitriolic nonsense with the attention of the Court, we should ignore Phelps to the extent possible, and otherwise offer him nothing but vicious mockery and unmitigated scorn.

As Phelps himself noted after the jury returned its verdict, this case will “elevate me to something important.” Clearly, the last thing we need is for jerks like Phelps to get the idea that they are important, or that anybody outside of their kooky clique values what they have to say.

I propose that going forward the media only refer to Phelps as “that Major League Asshole from Maryland,” and deny him talk-radio time, TV news spots, and newspaper column inches, other than the occasional symbolic poking of a stick into the collective eye of the WBC.

In the end, even this minimal amount of attention is more than he deserves, but at least it will keep him out of the Court’s hair – and out of the headlines he so clearly craves.