Bad Guys Win

A few months ago, my lawyer buddy Sam and I were talking about the case of Snyder v. Phelps going to the Supreme Court. I told him I knew how I felt about the case- my position regarding the vituperative homophobes of the Westboro Baptist Church and their brainwashed sign-bearing children is unambiguous- I was just trying to figure out why their vile funeral protests should not be protected by the First Amendment. I was struggling with how to be for the First Amendment and also be for the WBC having to sell all their holdings to pay damages to the Snyder family. I knew where I wanted the line to be; I just hadn’t found the convoluted logic to draw it.

This was the no-brainer case that found rednecks, gays, average Joes, suburban moms, military families and veterans all standing on the same side- against a group as broadly detestable as any Marvel villain. No matter who you are, chances are there is something the WBC does, says, or stands for that turns your stomach, and the reasonable public was rightly rooting against them. But if only making them shut up were as easy as wishing them harm. If only justifying banning their right to expression were as easy as reviling them, this case would have been open-and-shut.

So in my heart, I was sorry to see that the Supreme Court nearly unanimously ruled in favor of the the Phelpses and their deluded flock- because the guys nobody wanted to see win, won. There was not happy denouement. There is nothing heartwarming in the Court’s denying satisfaction to the grieving and seemingly star-crossed family of a dead soldier.

But my greater feeling, or maybe the feeling that I have no choice but to be left with, is that this is our periodic reminder that we are not to be governed by the visceral or ruled by collective public outrage, but by principles much more detached and steadfast- a reminder of why we have an objective Constitution that we go back to over and over again. Of why we don’t just make it up as we go. Because when we feel acute pain, we flinch, and we just want to make the hurting stop. Times like these are why we rely on core values that can’t feel pain- that never flinch.

It’s easy to cheerlead for the First Amendment when it concerns uptight moralists railing against smarmy smut peddlers or clownish devil-worshipping metal bands-these are relative Milquetoasts. But fighters don’t prove themselves against meek challengers- they have to knock out fierce and worthy opponents before we know they’re for real. And this decision is one for the ages: a reminder that the First Amendment is a heavyweight, whether it makes you stand and cheer or cringe and look away.