Compare the news out of France and the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, both involving the limits on offensive speech.
In Snyder v. Phelps, the High Court ruled 8-1 that the First Amendment protects the Westboro Baptist Church from being sued for picketing the funerals of U.S. troops with signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The Topeka church’s message is that God hates the United States, especially its military, for tolerating homosexuality. The Court’s decision was a courageous and principled one in light of the near universal abhorrence of the church’s method for proclaiming its message.
In contrast, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced yesterday that superstar fashion designer John Galliano will stand trial for public anti-Semitic rants that resulted in his firing by French fashion house Dior on Tuesday. Galliano faces up to six months in prison and $31,000 in fines if convicted of making public insults on the basis of religion or origin.
Both Galliano and the Westboro Baptist Church should be ashamed of themselves. But even as a Jew, I’m thankful that we live in a country where anti-Semitic tirades – and other highly offensive types of speech – are protected by the Constitution. The alternative is to give the government the power to determine what statements are too offensive to utter and that power is a far greater threat than the rants of private citizens can ever be.