Letter to the Editor 3.13.11

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Today my local newspaper published a letter to the editor I wrote, responding to an article by Greg Rummo (reproduced here) about the Supreme Court outcome of the Snyder v. Phelps case.

The letter can be found here. I think the link has an expiration date and later readers may not be able to access it, so as with other letters to the editor, I’m reposting it in its entirety here:

Testing limits of religion, free speech

Regarding “The Supreme Court’s puzzling ruling” (Opinion, Page O-2, March 6):

Greg Rummo combines two separate issues to paint the court’s deeming the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral pickets protected speech as contrary to precedent.

The so-called “religious love speech” Rummo says the Supreme Court opposes as “dangerous” (Ten Commandment postings in public spaces, Nativity displays in public spaces and school prayer) are all examples of public institutions respecting the establishment of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause and the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. And the court hasn’t opposed prayer in public schools, only institutionally sponsored prayer. Students are free to pray to their heart’s content so long as it isn’t disruptive.

That’s entirely different from the new Snyder v. Phelps ruling against funeral sanctity laws, which closely resembles Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. There, the court held that speech motivated even by hatred or ill will is protected by the First Amendment. In his Falwell decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, ” ‘Outrageousness’ in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.”

Likewise, there’s an “inherent subjectiveness” in the “outrageousness” of funeral pickets. Although we may not like what the Westboro Baptist case says, the church members have the same constitutional right as anyone else to peacefully assemble.

The only problem I have with the editing job was the last sentence, which was originally intended to read as:  “Although we may not like what the WBC says, the church members have the same constitutional right as anyone else to peacefully assemble.” The intent was to say we don’t have the right to prevent ourselves from being offended, not to again defend the Court’s ruling. It’s a subtle difference and certainly both points can be found earlier in the piece, but I prefer my original version. Otherwise though, no major changes were made.

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