Protecting free speech for people you'd never invite home

By Jayson Jacoby October 22, 2010 10:08 am

The great paradox of the First Amendment, it seems to me, is that the pure beauty of its purpose must on occasion give aid and comfort to people whose acts are so ugly as to defy description.

I don’t believe, though, that this noble treatise, now well into its third century, is sullied even slightly by its associations with vile characters.

The truest test of any right, of course, comes about when it’s claimed by the sort of people you wouldn’t let into your house.

Or your dog’s house.


A nation needs little courage to allow its most thoughtful and benevolent citizens to express themselves without interference.

But there’s no surer sign of a country’s commitment to freedom and tolerance than when it extends the very same protections to its pathetic dregs. 

The latest such example, now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, involves a Kansas church whose congregation exemplifies the sad affliction that is homophobia.

I suspect most of us have seen members of the Westboro Baptist Church going about their ghastly business.

They assemble near the funerals for American soldiers who died in combat. The church members, some of them young children who I hope aren’t permanently ruined by the experience (I’m not confident, though), brandish signs which convey the idea that God killed those soldiers to punish America for tolerating homosexuals.

The sheer crudity of such a notion, and of these spectacles, ensured that the church would attract considerable media attention even before the Supreme Court got involved.

The blatant disconnect inherent in such a scene is of course a factor as well.

What you have, basically, are people almost literally dancing on the graves of the very people who died while defending the Constitution that enables the dancers.

I suspect most people who watch are lured by the same curiosity that prompted thousands to gather when Evel Knievel tried to fly his motorcycle across the fountains at Caesar’s Palace — they simply can’t believe what people will do unless they actually see it happen.

Although the Westboro church’s antics disgust me, I hope the Supreme Court, as it has done in ostensibly comparable cases, reaffirms the First Amendment and the rights it conveys on the church members. I’m confident the justices will do so.

But such a ruling, though nourishing in one sense, will be an unsatisfying dish, tasteless as gruel.

I agree that the First Amendment, if it is to remain one of the granitic foundations of our republic, must retain its blind allegiance to the principle of equality.

I fear that if we as a society seek to distinguish between those who are worthy of our fundamental protections and those who have forfeited such through the cruelest sorts of bigotry, at that instant the first crack will pierce the solid base.

You can’t always see such a flaw right off, but the damp will slip in there anyhow, inevitable as the tides.

And no mountain, whether built by man or by nature, is so great that it can resist the erosive power of water.

Still and all, I wish that the First Amendment were more often called upon to defend people who speak up for the powerless and the innocent, rather than those whose moral standards could slide below the belly of the skulking cockroach.

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Some people in Union County don’t think much of wind farms.

One proposed wind farm, anyway.

Horizon Wind Energy, which put up the turbines near North Powder, wants to erect 164 more on Craig Mountain, between Union and Ladd Canyon.

Opponents of the proposed Antelope Ridge Wind Farm formed a group called Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley.

I’m ambivalent about wind power myself.

On the one hand I think we need to tap more of the wind if we’re going to wean ourselves from non-renewable sources such as coal and petroleum.

On the other hand I’m leery of an industry that can’t survive without hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies from the taxpayers.

In any case, I understand why Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley are riled about the Antelope Ridge development.

It’s their back yard. I wouldn’t be too pleased if Horizon tried to line the Elkhorns with 300-foot towers.

What I don’t get, though, is why the group chose to employ such nasty tactics in its anti-wind campaign.

I’m not talking about common hyperbole. Some of that is a trifle silly, but it’s also as predictable in a political campaign as signs in red, white and blue.

These people seem passionate, and passionate people are prone to exaggeration.

The group’s Web site, for instance, proclaims that if the Antelope Ridge Wind Farm is built, “Union County will be destroyed physically, economically and carelessly.”

Destroyed? Really?

This sort of hysteria reminds me of the ravings of a few extreme environmentalists who have been forecasting the imminent demise of Earth’s ecosystems for a couple of decades.

The group’s radio ads describing Craig Mountain also seem to me rather, well, overblown.

If the place is such a pristine haven for embattled flora and fauna, I’d have thought the United Nations would have seized it for a biopreserve years ago.

Perhaps the blue-uniformed foreign hordes were put off by the mountain’s proximity to an intensely farmed valley on the east and north flanks, and to a four-lane freeway on the west.

Anyway, I’m more amused than offended by these inflated claims about the effects of a wind farm.

The Friends group’s latest radio spot, by contrast, is egregious and seems to me indefensible.

Allowing Horizon to put up its turbines, the narrator intones, amounts to the “rape” of Union County’s land and its people’s pockets.

That word has no place in this debate.

Or, come to that, in any debate which doesn’t involve the actual crime of rape.

I realize Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley hopes to portray Horizon as the most wretched brand of villain.

But English is a colorful language, and it has an abundance of good words that can convey an appropriate level of disdain.

I suggest the Friends invest in a thesaurus.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.