Among the sentimental treasures I’ve kept from my days in San Francisco is a 25-year-old magazine ad promoting the city’s tourism industry. Created by Goodby Berlin & Silverstein, it features two bearded and mustachioed men, smoking cigarettes, wearing rhinestone encrusted sunglasses, multi-colored ruffled dresses and foot-tall platinum bouffant wigs with huge bows stuck in the hair. The caption of the ad:
“This year, instead of showing your kids where the Bill of Rights was signed, show them why.”
I realize it would pain the members of the Westboro Baptist Church — scheduled to protest today in Terre Haute — but that ad makes me think of them.
No, not because the men in the photo were part of San Francisco’s annual gay Pride Day parade, and the Westboro folks’ official website names sum up their take on homosexuality (and Christianity): godhatesfags.com and godhatesfags.org.
I associate the two men in hilarious public drag with the Westboro faithful — dragging their strange, hateful protest across the United States to military funerals, high schools, theaters and churches — because all of them stand protected under the same noble umbrella.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
We hear a lot of talk these days about the sanctity of the Constitution being threatened. But the First Amendment can make the most vociferous constitutionalist start to equivocate. Lines that people would not dream of drawing through other amendments, they want to draw through the First. When public speech offends or outrages, when its content repulses the majority, many Constitutional cheerleaders head for the exits, leaving the First Amendment with few friends.
One of the most pointed examples of this in my lifetime is the planned march by neo Nazis through the streets of Skokie, Ill., in the late 1970s. Skokie was selected, barely 30 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Dachau and other Nazi concentrations camps, largely because of its high percentage of Jewish residents, many of them Holocaust survivors.
The march never took place in Skokie, but the Chicago suburb was rocked for more than a year by the probability. Philippa Strum’s award-winning book, “When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate,” offers a terrific account of the controversy.
Hundreds of elected officials, attorneys, judges, religious and civic leaders and ordinary citizens became embroiled in a protracted battle that produced a 6-3 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the Nazis. While several heroes emerged, the two I’ve most admired are Burton Joseph and David Goldberger, Jewish attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued for the Nazis’ First Amendment right to rally in Skokie.
Burton, who died in March, represented the Illinois ACLU and urged the national ACLU to continue to argue the repugnant case. Goldberger, now a professor at Ohio State University, was the lead national attorney. He bore the brunt of impassioned backlash from his fellow Jews and ACLU members who felt the First Amendment line had to be drawn at uniform-wearing, swatiska-bearing, neo Nazis in Skokie.
Goldberger’s client was a disturbed, self-promoting man named Frank Collin, who milked each legal obstacle and ruling for every ounce of publicity. In an interview with Chicago columnist Bob Greene, Collin said he hoped the Jews of Skokie were “terrified” of his party’s rally and parade “because we’re coming to get them again.” Collin also told Greene that the “unfortunate thing” about the Holocaust was not six million dead Jews, “but that there were so many Jewish survivors.”
Typical of most hate mongers, Collin turned out to have a deep, dark secret: His father’s original surname was Cohen; Frank Collin was half Jewish.
That’s not all. In 1980 a Cook County jury found Collin guilty of sexually abusing young boys. He spent three years of a seven-year sentence in prison at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
Talk about your despicable poster child for First Amendment rights. But as Goldberger had argued to his fellow ACLU members three years before, “The Nazis are not the real issue. The Skokie laws [prohibiting the Nazi rally] are the real issue.”
The First Amendment has never been about the worth or legitimacy of the ideas being expressed or of the people expressing them. As the Skokie case illustrated — and as the Supreme Court will hear this week in the case of the Westboro Baptists — the statute does not exist to protect speech and public actions that a majority of reasonable people find agreeable. The First Amendment is about the intrinsic value of free expression, appealing or disgusting.
The revered Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it well when he wrote that the authors of the Bill of Rights knew that something far worse than repulsive speech stalks the First Amendment. They knew “that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”
Who knows what deep secrets lie within the small band of Kansas Baptists who targeted St. Patrick’s and Bible Baptist churches here today? Why are they obsessed with other people’s sex lives? And how did they ever twist logic to believe that fallen U.S. soldiers are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of lesbians and gays?
What we do know is, the Westboro bunch’s ugly perversion of Christian principles is a prime example of something profoundly beautiful in this country — the right to freely express ourselves. That this right puts them in the close company of two mustachioed guys in ruffled dresses and bouffant wigs is sweet American icing on the cake.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.