“Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; […] there must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Dear Westboro Baptist Church,
We are happy that you exist. From the sincerest depths of our hearts, we really are. We are not saying that we necessarily appreciate what you do, or agree with what you say. In fact, we hold a vitriolic hatred of every word that officially leaves your mouths. We could not possibly disagree more with what you have said and continue to say. That aside, we are grateful that you exist. You may be asking yourselves, “Why on earth would libertarians be so delighted that we exist?” This is the question we wish to answer for you. Your existence gives weight to so many important facets of freedom in this country and in the general scheme of freedom. Your existence gives weight to the free exercise and free speech clauses of the First Amendment, preventing their atrophy from infrequent application. Your existence gives weight to tort law concerning libel and defamation. Your existence even goes as far as to give weight to the very idea of what freedom of speech means to a free and liberal society.
People get comfortable in their freedom, this much is true. This is also nothing new at all. After visiting the United States in the 19th Century and taking notes on the culture and civic scene, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that it is through this complicity in freedom that freedom meets its demise. People in the United States often become complicit in their freedom. They like finding something here or there to be offended at to remind themselves that they may actually want to place limits on freedom. An occasional wardrobe malfunction, litigation over violent video games, the scandal that is the vice-president saying a naughty word; Americans revel in their occasional debates over these things. But you, WBC, you are a different issue altogether. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the religious and the irreligious have all come together in the past to propose legislation to keep you out of parks and away from funerals. They have shown up at your protests and have lobbed items at you in anger. They’ve even chased you all the way to the highest court in the land. You test their freedom. You make them uncomfortable. You do what nearly nothing else can do in this country.
The day Albert Snyder buried his son, Matthew, a fallen Iraq War veteran, you callously greeted the funeral mourners with your infamous “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” signs that have provoked the ire of many. Understandably angered, the elder Snyder decided to bring suit against you. While the outcome of silencing the bile that oozes from your mouths and from your pastor Fred Phelps would seem to benefit society, we actually couldn’t be more thrilled that you prevailed in your right to be hatefully provocative.
Adding to the marketplace’s ability to weed out bad ideas, it is also aids the free spread of knowledge that speech not be subject to any prior restraints. As Hayek said, “the mind cannot foresee its own advance.” And as Christopher Hitchens forcefully argues in this video, your right to speak freely is also our right to hear you uncensored, and to be exposed to all possible ideas no matter how unpopular, particularly on issues of civic importance such as war. The day we gleefully silence speech like yours is the day we admit that there is a group of people which is fit and proper to determine all the new ideas we will ever be presented with. We are simply not willing to outsource the responsibility for our learning to a central board. We can only learn how absurd you are, WBC, as long as you are free to open your mouths in demonstration of the fact.
1920s civil libertarian and ACLU lawyer Arthur Hays wrote “Thought must be free. Men cannot think unless they express themselves. Is this an absolute? Yes, just as the right to think is an absolute. Are there no exceptions? None whatever. Has not society the right to protect itself against noxious ideas? No.” It’s almost as if he wrote that with you in mind. So, hats off to you, Westboro Baptist Church. Your speech is despicable and rejects nearly every value that a good libertarian believes in, but that is exactly why your speech is needed more than ever in a free society.