In his famous 1919 ruling in Schenck vs. the United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. penned the now - famous statement: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." Time and again this ruling is quoted to make the point that words are not impotent sounds that have no impact; words matter.
While the science of psychology can certainly validate and help explain how verbal abuse is used to cause emotional distress, battered spouses and children are a living testimony to the damage words can ultimately inflict on a person’s well-being. There is not a court is this country or a competent mental-health professional that will not readily acknowledge the profound pain and suffering of emotional abuse.
In recent weeks, there have been a rash of teen suicides that have resulted from peer-bullying. These teens may not have been physically battered, but no reasonable person familiar with such stories can deny the injuries inflicted by angry, vile words spoken deliberately with vicious intent.
Some years ago, the relatively unknown Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas City, identified a very despicable way of bringing attention to himself and his warped theology -that God is angry with America for its tolerance of homosexuality. Totally indifferent to the bereaved families of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, he and his congregants began showing up at the funerals of fallen soldiers shouting ugly words and holding up signs that suggested that such deaths were a welcome intervention by God.
While Phelps and his band of misguided followers raised the ire of most people, their harassment has continued unabated because of America’s profound respect for the individual's right to freedom of speech. And while there has been national and state legislation (Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act,) passed requiring that such demonstrations take place 300 or more feet away from military funerals, being down the block or across the street doesn’t dilute the vile, hateful verbiage which funeral attendees are still exposed too.
Are any of us prepared to tell an Iraq or Afghanistan vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that he/she is not entitled to the same benefits as someone with a physical wound? Emotional trauma injures the human psyche as surely as a bullet pierces the skin.
Would we permit a religious group that finds contemporary children’s fashions repugnant to their reading of scripture to harass our children with signs and vitriolic words at school or in the playground? Are mourners any less entitled to our protection? Would we let the Westboro Baptist Church folks throw rocks at the mourners? So why do we allow them to throw verbal bombshells at these emotionally vulnerable people?
And let's be honest: is this controversy really about Rev. Phelp’s right to free speech? Or, is he conducting psychological terrorism and using free speech as his camouflage? Inflicting mental anguish on others IS NOT a guaranteed right in a democracy. If Rev. Phelps really wants to communicate his bizarre theology in the shadow of the funerals of our fallen heroes, he and his congregants may do so at different venues, at different hours, out of site and hearing of the bereaved. He of course refuses to accept holding such demonstrations either out of view or earshot of such funerals because his motivation is really to terrorize the mourners and in turn, bask in the attention of an indignant nation.
Bravo and kudos to the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who are demanding retribution for the pain and suffering they and their friends experienced as a result of the Westboro Baptist Church picketing Matthew's funeral. Shame on us, their community, for not protecting this family and all the other Gold-Star families who have been victimized by Phelps and his cult. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will concurr that this abuse is not protected by the Constitution and will rule in favor of the Snyder family. Such a ruling would hopefully put an end to this psychological terrorism,