First Amendment Remedies

The Tucson, Arizona shooting tragedy has our country talking (finally) about, well, talking. How our words matter. How, no matter our intent, our words effect change when loosed upon the world. All the election rhetoric about targeting, reloading, and resorting to “Second Amendment remedies” haunts us like that beautiful nine-year-old’s face.

Words matter. We need to own them.

Now, from the very tattered fringe edge of the First Amendment, the Westboro Baptist Church folks with chief hater Fred Phelps apparently plan to sully the funeral of our country’s newly-lost daughter with their message of hate, hell, and intolerance.

In typical government response, Arizona lawmakers are hastily considering passing laws that would shut up the Westboro group or otherwise keep them from expressing their views. Admirable and well meaning, but that is wrong. Passing laws that restrict the speech of hate groups invariably restricts the speech of any unpopular, disruptive movement. We do not want our government in the position to choose what speech is allowed and what is not. Such power will someday be used by those in government against dissenters, queer folk, and small groups that vocally disagree. This is, without much exaggeration, what we fought the Revolutionary War to avoid.

Now is the time to resort to First Amendment remedies. Less speech is not the best answer: More speech is. Show bad ideas for what they are, and publicly reject them as a community. Expressions of peace that respond to and overwhelm Westboro's expressions of hate.

Here is a model that is close to my heart. That must-read post is by my Twitter friend and science writer John Fleck, six years ago. He proudly describes how young people, wearing huge bed-sheet wings as angels, peacefully turn their backs on the hate group’s protest and unfurled their wings--angels protecting that line between the community and hate. Those angels standing between Westboro and the civilized world in the video are embodying both peace action and the First Amendment in its most glorious form.

When we discussed this on Twitter, another Twitter friend described countering a Westboro hate protest with a dance counter-protest (one that involved glitter!). What could be a better remedy for the message “God Hates Fags” than a glittery flash mob? I can’t imagine. I only wish I was there.

In fact I found scores of inspiring videos on YouTube associated with the counter-protest organizers Not In Our Town, and everyone who has ever been touched by The Laramie Project. (If you haven’t, you must see.) And even this: The Westboro hate folks somewhat ironically (prophetically?) protest some productions of The Laramie Project, and are met with Angel-style counter-protests from the community. (Talk about meta!)

This was a gift that was given to us by the civil rights struggle: that we can, over time, drown out expressions of hate and bad ideas with louder and stronger expressions of love, tolerance, and good ideas. The bad ideas do not seem to go away fast enough, but they do lose currency. These are First Amendment remedies: peaceful expressive action putting the hate speech in context. The expressions of bad ideas (here, hate) counterpoised starkly against the backdrop of right ideas (dancing, angels, a community united). We drown out expression of bad ideas with more expression of the good. At the same time, we actively and publicly reject the hate rhetoric, as a community.

This--a community coming together deliberately and publicly to overcome hate with love--is the highest, most perfect form of the First Amendment I can imagine. I am hopeful that an entire Wall of Angels will peacefully overwhelm the Westboro hate protests in Tucson this week.  A wall of angels would better embody the support, grief, and solidarity of our community against hate than passing hasty laws banning controversial speech ever would. (By the way, I feel the same principle applies to political rhetoric with violent and disturbing themes. The answer to that kind of speech is more speech, calling it out, putting it in stark contrast to good ideas, and drowning it out. If the First Amendment means anything, it means we can freely criticize uncivil discourse, with civil discourse.) 

Our country was born of this idea of fighting unpopular and downright bad expression with more free counter-expression. It was born of the ideal that small, vocal, unpopular and even disruptive movements should be protected from government squelching. The founders apparently thought we future generations could work out the good ideas from the bad this way. With angels. And flash mobs. And glitter.

 Time to resort to First Amendment remedies.