The Washington Post is defending Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s decision to not join 47 other states in siding with the father of a dead Marine in his lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church:
It would be difficult to find a more loathsome band than Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose sparse congregation mounts small but vocal protests at military funerals, schools and other venues around the country. The church — better described as an extended family cult led by its patriarch, one Fred W. Phelps Sr. — deploys its members, some of whom drag the American flag on the ground, with signs praising God for dead soldiers, improvised explosive devices and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, killed in action in Iraq, sued Mr. Phelps and the church, arguing that by picketing the funeral they had caused the family emotional distress, interfered with its privacy and abridged its rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly.
Some of Mr. Cuccinelli’s critics have noted that the right to free speech can be legitimately restricted, as in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous example of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. But restrictions that safeguard public safety should not be wielded to stifle public speech, no matter how inflammatory or hurtful. The sensible way to deal with Mr. Phelps and his followers is by using the same regulations the authorities generally use to contain other obnoxious groups of protesters — racists, neo-Nazis, skinheads. Keep them at a distance from which they cannot disrupt their targets, provide adequate police presence to deter violence, and let them spew. That approach ensures that in the free marketplace of ideas, their hate speech will fall on deaf ears.
Yes, absolutely, and Cuccinelli deserves credit for not taking the political easy way out and arguing that the funeral protesters should be barred from voicing their loathsome opinions.
This is one of those cases that makes defending the First Amendment hard, but Cuccinelli’s on the right side of this one.