Globe Editorial

Hate speech: Society steps in, even if law doesn’t

March 5, 2011

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The US Supreme Court made an unpleasant call, but the right call, this week when it upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to wage ugly protests at solemn events. The tiny Kansas-based outfit makes its name by showing up at military funerals and shouting anti-gay slurs and waving hateful signs. But in voting 8-1 that Constitution protects the group’s self-expression, the court wasn’t just acknowledging the far reach of the First Amendment. The ruling also reflects a faith in Americans’ ability, independent of any government action, to condemn loathsome speech.

The court’s decision is in marked contrast with the case of fashion designer John Galliano, the flamboyant creative director of Christian Dior, whose anti-Semitic rant at a Paris bar was captured on film. In France, where the law reflects a deep shame over the Vichy government’s complicity with the Holocaust, hate speech isn’t just unprotected; it’s illegal. Galliano was charged with the crime of making racist comments in public, which carries a $31,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

Yet time has demonstrated, over and over again, that official action isn’t necessary to punish those who grossly violate the bounds of propriety. Galliano lost his job, and his career is likely over. The Westboro Baptist Church, despite its court victory, is similarly isolated. Ugly rants have won the group next to no followers — just a string of condemnations, far louder and stronger than a few people’s ugly shouts.