It's a controversial topic, and it keeps coming up: just what are people allowed to say, when are they allowed to say it, and what protection does the First Amendment offer to someone who makes threats, derogatory statements, or lies?
An example of just how hard it can be to respect free speech comes from the Westboro Baptist Church, who has routinely been dragged into court for defamation and slander, but have never (to my knowledge) lost a lawsuit. In fact, in at least one documented case, they were allowed to seek damages from the plaintiff for violating their first amendment rights. It's a sickening display of our legal system. This is a group that has become infamous for it's hateful rhetoric and despicable practices of picketing funerals.
So, do we draw the line at this kind of incendiary language? Or do we have to allow it? Can we stop this group from expressing their views? No, we can't.
The problem is, we are only as free as those we limit the most. If we take away the free speech of an extremely homophobic organization like Westboro, we essentially limit the free speech of ourselves. Sure, we might never say those things, or even think them, but to say that no one can limits the rights of people to say what they wish.
As hard as it is to listen to members of that organization, we have to remember that this is the dirty underside of our valuable speech rights. The freedom to say what we wish comes with the caveat that we have to let them say what they want as well. If we limit them, we limit ourselves. After all, whose to say that limiting that kind of speech would not lead to limiting other kinds? And who would make those decisions? Based on the amount of power some organizations have, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that limits could be placed on people talking about contraception, gay rights, immigration, or any number of other things. It sounds crazy, but when we live in a world where courts allow limitless campaign donations from anonymous sources, I don't put anything past our judicial system.
So, we have to live with the folks from Westboro. At the very least, they are a constant reminder of just how wrong religion can become, and a good measure of where people stand on the issues of God, homosexuality, and free speech.