There’s a tsunami of speech rolling over the planet, and yet it comes at a time when many Americans are wondering if we’ve all gone “free expression” crazy. Yes, let’s all be free… to type out the minutiae of our lives on social sites, to post “funny” videos that show pets interacting with toilets, to create pop songs that have to be bleeped to play on radio, to adorably toss-out “F-bombs” on awards shows, and to quit our elected governor gig early so we have time to Twitter drivel that actually makes the evening news. It started to feel as though every day was raining Styrofoam packing peanuts of “speech” filling our backyards, and soon we’d be waist deep in them and unable to conduct our regular business.
Then the Middle East stirred, and now we’re once again appreciating the life we have and the role of free speech in that life. Or, are we?
Last week many seemed disappointed that the Supreme Court ruled that anti-gay protestors who picketed the funerals of U.S. troops with signs reading “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” cannot be sued. More specifically they ruled that when disputed words address matters of public import on public property (that coincidentally adjoined a military funeral route) and said protest is conducted in a peaceful manner, then that is protected speech.
What the Supremes cannot rule on is simple good taste. If they could, we might actually have some means of at least tamping down expression by people exhibiting discernable features of mental illness. And because that particular form of expression can often become a quickly distributed commodity, we’re left feeling that we can’t escape it and that somehow we all enable it. Try going to a party and not talking about Charlie Sheen. Try stopping all conversations about him that take place within your own range of hearing. You can’t, so you end up engaged. Maybe Sheen is in fact a drug and he’s in our water supplies.
Consider side-by-side these two different gushing pipes of bilge, uh, speech… that we’ve been gifted with in the last few weeks: The above cited hate speech from Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, and actor Charlie Sheen. While each took different paths in getting to the big megaphone of national attention, both parties are publicly manifesting at least four of the 12 clinical symptoms of mental illness posted on the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Confused thinking, excessive fears or worries, detachment from reality or hallucinations, and ‘feeling sad or down.’”
Discussing Phelps and his church one wants to begin with “If I understand them correctly” because the angle of their reasoning is so deeply bent. But if I understand them correctly, this “church” is so distraught (see “excessive fears” and “sad”) about homosexuality and the U.S. military allowing gays to enlist that it proudly hoists signs that bring pain to the families of our fallen heroes at the funeral services of those heroes. Criticism of those who have fallen in battle in our armed forces, powered by hyper homophobia? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I refer you to the line on the chart reading “Detachment from reality or hallucinations.”
Years ago I used to joke that at some point our appetite for celebrity effluvia would evolve into something like “Colonoscopies of the Stars.” Cue CBS’s Katie Couric and Harry Smith, albeit with good intentions intact. In line with good intentions, imagine one of the late night talk show hosts picking up that fallen good taste baton and announcing that until Mr. Sheen gets the help he needs his talk show will not encourage a potential national deathwatch with Sheen jokes every night.
On Monday Warner Brothers officially fired Sheen from his series, and a letter from their lawyers to Sheen’s lawyer noted that Sheen “has been engaged in dangerously self-destructive conduct and appears to be very ill.” With the rest of the world about a year ahead of them in making that observation, let’s hope their action helps Sheen move to a healthier place.
The exposure the troubled Westboro flock manipulates from media has a primal basis: If a group of mentally ill people were organizing themselves as a “church” in your neighborhood, you’d want to know about it. Sheen and Westboro perfectly illustrate that the price exacted for freedom of speech may continue, like gasoline, to go up from time to time. But we’re not powerless to contain the ranting of the damaged, or the volume on their megaphone. With Westboro we can refuse to address them as a “church,” since they’re something more like a “clan”… spelled any way you want. And with Mr. Sheen we could refuse to publish or broadcast every single drooling, especially with the headline “Our top story tonight.”