Legislating against lunatics only lends them credibility
Published: Tuesday, March 21st, 2006
Once we begin legislating against lunatics, there will be no end to the legislating. So while we share Colorado state Rep. Michael Merrifield’s revulsion at a tiny group of nut-cases disrupting military funerals, in a bid to draw the media spotlight, we don’t support his remedy — a bill that would attempt to build a “bubble” around military funerals and keep these protesters at bay. It would feel good on a visceral level to lash out at such heartless and brainless people, so Merrifield’s bill will almost certainly garner bipartisan backing, as politicians rush to signal support for military families. But on an intellectual level, and with an eye toward upholding an important principle, we think Merrifield’s bubble bill is an unwise overreaction. Tying up any legislature’s time crafting a constitutionally valid response to this ghoulish gang of protesters is playing into their hands, by turning a one-day story into a multi-week event. And people this obnoxious will undoubtedly take delight in breaking or flouting any law passed, as a way of staying in the media spotlight. Meanwhile, important First Amendment principles will have taken a beating. According to published reports, one of the protest organizers “clearly was pleased with the attention the church is getting as a result of the controversy.” It was “awesome,” she said, “because the eyes of the world are going to watch as this nation, which has forgotten her God and gone whoring after a strange god, gives away her freedom.” How much clearer could it be that part of what these people want is to bait Americans into giving away their freedoms? The best response to such provocations is shunning, indifference and quiet contempt for anyone so desperate to get attention that they would resort to harassing the grieving families of slain patriots. And we’re sure that many of these families, while understandably enraged by such antics, also recognize that freedom of speech and protest are among the liberties their loved ones fought for. Are we honoring that sacrifice by reacting in ways that could undermine the First Amendment? Existing laws, creatively applied by smart district attorneys and police, might be used to help keep the wackos from invading the sanctity of the graveside. Does crashing a funeral and impugning the deceased constitute an incitement to violence, endangering public safety? We’re not sure. But before we go writing new laws, let’s be sure that existing law won’t provide an adequate remedy. Not every short-term problem lends itself to a legislative fix. And because such responses can have long-term unintended consequences, it’s best to avoid acting impetuously. Obviously, this is a morbid and sick attention-getting device. But many protest groups shock normal sensibilities as a way of getting publicity. Think of the anti-abortion protesters who park a truck plastered with gruesome images at high schools. Think of the white supremacists who produce hate-filled fliers. Think of the nutty publicity stunts pulled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Think of the college students who shout down speakers they disagree with. Now, think about whether these tactics win hearts and minds. Ultimately, such outrageous forms of protest are self-defeating and alienating, as shown by the fact that those who engage in them remain on the fringes, where they belong. Legislating with an eye toward silencing the lunatic fringe not only gives a tiny minority more credibility than it deserves, but it potentially undermines the rights of the responsible majority.
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