Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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Speaking freely without thought risks hurtful consequences

By Cynthia Oi


A federal judge's order this week stopping the military from enforcing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy must have brought Fred Phelps and his Kansas cult to their knees, for the ruling folds over the prime targets of their venom as well as those they believe are enemies of America.

Phelps and his church, consisting mostly of family members, oppose gays and lesbians -- "the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth," to quote his website.

The sect has chosen funerals of soldiers as occasions for protests because it considers combat deaths as its god's punishment for Americans' acceptance of homosexuality.

If there was any sense of hypocrisy in Phelps' appealing for redress to the government he proclaims his god hates, it wasn't evident as his lawyer-daughter argued before the Supreme Court for church members' right to freedom of speech.

The court's dilemma is to decide if there are limits to this constitutional principle, whether the First Amendment protects even the vile statements church members disgorge on families in mourning.

The host of people and institutions the church also despises include Catholics, Jews, women ("Thank God for Breast Cancer," declares one of its posters), the president, New Orleans (hence Katrina) and countries around the world.

But they unsheathe their most repulsive weapons of words against gays.

Phelps and faction are at the extreme end of anti-gay expression. They go far beyond remarks like those of Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for New York governor, who said he doesn't want his children "brainwashed" into thinking being gay is acceptable, later qualifying his statement to add that he didn't mean he wanted "to hurt homosexual people in any way."

The qualification was necessary for him to buffer himself from an awful assault earlier this month in the Bronx where two teenagers and a gay man were horribly beaten, tortured and sodomized, authorities said, by a gang repelled by homosexuality.

The violence was as extreme in action as Phelps' verbal assaults, and both reverberate through recent incidents.

Last month, four teenagers killed themselves after they were harassed for being gay. Prominent among them was a Rutgers University freshman who jumped off a bridge after his roommate posted a secretly taped video of him kissing another male.

There may be a vast difference between a concerted program of enmity to make money and gain sadistic pleasure and self-importance like Phelps', and a texted taunt or Facebook smash among imprudent teenagers, but the variance in hurt and damage both cause is small.

Phelps and his cohorts are not likely to see their right to speak freely and cruelly obstructed by the court. Though legislation could restrict them in other ways, such as proximity or scope, they should be allowed to conduct their campaign of intolerance because the fundamental right entitled to Americans must survive the madness of the moment.

Yet there is a higher power to answer to. It is the one that resides in the soul.

Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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