Today a case will be argued before the Supreme Court which would seem to have nothing to do with animals. A creepy, mean-spirited Baptist minister (I’m pretty sure he played the minister in Poltergeist II) is arguing to overturn his five million dollar loss to the family of a US serviceman killed in Iraq. The minister and his flock demonstrated outside the funeral, as they have at many others, shouting that God hates America and allowed the soldier to be killed because our government allows abortion and homosexuality. Yuck.
Now, I think this guy is wrong on so many levels. Beyond the logical disconnect that we still had servicemen die in battle in eras when we did, in fact, criminalize abortion and homosexuality or the moral disconnect of one Christian attacking the family of another whose loved one sacrificed himself for a greater good, the demonstrations are just mean and rude and the family does not deserve the added pain. But to provide some new class of unprotected speech, clearly political and religious speech, just because we find it repugnant and it occurs at, outside, near, or ten miles from a funeral, is a terrible idea. And one which could come back to haunt those working to help animals.
That’s because once you start smudging that line between the primacy of freedom of speech over the “damage” that can be done by protected speech, the government starts to find all kind of reasons to restrict what we can see, hear, say, and write. Judicially allowed obscenity restrictions were and are used widely and indiscriminately to limit speech of all types in the name of decorum and community standards. National security is now widely used to not only prohibit speech but to deny US citizens the right to due process, even citizens deemed to be completely innocent by our own government.
And let’s not forget the “food libel” laws which routinely limit free speech. Before Oprah she had fully tapped into the Universal Power and could simply incinerate foes with a glance, she had to defend herself against meat processors for simply saying she would stop eating hamburgers. Cattlemen claimed she had defamed and libeled an entire industry by merely expressing her intention to not eat a burger. Although she won that specific case, food liable cases are common and frequently used to limit the speech of advocacy organizations and authors.
Even in Pennsylvania, efforts are underway to create “bio-terrorism” protections for agriculture- maybe even including puppy mills– which could potentially render cruelty investigators terrorists for investigating cruelty and discussing what they found. Al Qaida will be infiltrating puppy mills? Really?
And it goes both ways. Remember the law that would have made it illegal to “traffic” in images of animal cruelty? This restriction was, however understandably, unwisely supported by animal people, despite the fact that the law had the potential to open us up for prosecution if we showed images of the very cruelty we combat. In that case the Supreme Court wisely denied the creation of a new class of unprotected speech and opened the door for the banning of crush videos under existing obscenity restrictions.
We cannot pick and chose our Constitutional protections and we must always remind ourselves that the limitation applied to someone else today could be the limitation applied to us tomorrow. It is up to us to ignore and condemn hate speech and to shun those who engage in it, not the government.
So if you want the HSBC and others to continue to be able to speak out against the cruelty of puppy mills or pigeon shoots, speech which could certainly bring “harm” to those who engage in those deplorable activities, you should be pulling for that bigoted scum-bag to win his case. Because if he can’t say what he wants, we may all find ourselves standing squarely in the middle of the next un-protected class of speech, witnessing cruelty and abuse but being unable to say a word because we have been fitted with a shiny, new Constitutionally sanctioned muzzle.