Are Westboro Baptists Over the Line?

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    Hampton Roads personality, Mike Imprevento, takes on one aspect of free speech arising from the Westboro Baptist decision during his new radio show today on WNIS. The subject matter on his weekly motorcycle show began broadening during the Wisconsin public union spat. Now he has this new forum.

    “The Westboro thing is a no brainer.  A hero comes back dead and some morons from Kansas who have no life experience at all pronounce that this person is dead because of American foreign policy and the fact that we have gays in the military? It’s ridiculous.” — Mike Imprevento

    This episode about crafting a local ordinance that will protect families of fallen soldiers from the harassing antics of the caustic Kansas clique is aimed squarely at the broader Hampton Roads audience. Though he points out that the Supreme Court decision begs the larger question about at what point we decide certain statements do not deserve any protection (when a reasonable person would consider that the words might insight violence), it appears he wants to focus more manageably on these specific tactics. With the eclectic WNIS audience, you never know which side a caller may take and the initial comment by a caller may not reveal the agenda for the call, making for some unexpected twists when a subject like this is broached (as you will see under the fold).

    In an interview yesterday promoting today’s show, Tony Macrini asked, “What if they believe that acting on a homosexual inclination is an abomination? What if they did it a hundred miles away?” Imprevento responded that he doesn’t care about the distance, allowing that if it is a local ordinance, it has limited power. He says he personally does not mind if there is a space somewhere in the wilderness where the individual can utter words that simply go into the atmosphere, but that funerals should have protection. That is part of the balancing act and today Imprevento, a successful local attorney, intends to write a statute during his show that will prohibit such demonstrations while conforming to the constitution and recent judicial decisions.

    Macrini: We’re taking a phone call now because Scott in Norfolk says Mike is despicable.

    Imprevento: I don’t blame him.

    Macrini: …He’s the President of the Mike Imprevento fan club. Let’s go to Scott; put the head phones on, would you Mike…anything you want to bring up, that’s fine with us; 629-7979…888-756-7979…Scott welcome, go ahead please.

    Scott: This guy’s such a hypocrite.

    Macrini: Why?

    Scott: He hates, while he’s drafting legislation, against haters.

    Imprevento: That’s articulate.

    Scott: The same hatred this guy has, he claims these people have is burning within his own being.

    Macrini: Let’s me ask you this then Scott, let’s say, like the Nazis hated Jews and they did horrible things to them, so if you hated them, if you hated what the Nazis did, if you hated the Nazis, would that be wrong? Would it be wrong to hate somebody who would do hateful things?

    Scott: No I’m saying what his premise is, is hypocritical. In his legislation, who’s going to decide what is harmful speech? He considers the soldiers heroes. I consider them war criminals.

    Imprevento: Well, you’re a schmuck.

    Macrini: (laughing) If you enjoyed that sort of exchange, tune in tomorrow between one and three.

    Scott: That’s the extent of your defense.

    Imprevento: That’s right you’re a schmuck.

    Scott: You are pathetic; a fascist pig.

    Imprevento: Alright that’s good Scott, go have some more raisin bran.

    A Regent University constitutional law professor phoned to express his position that the Supreme Court decision was exactly right. Though he opined that the Westboro bunch are nut cases, he argued that they are speaking out on issues of public interest. Talking a position that virtually no one else shares, they went to the local Maryland police and the police put them on public property more than three football field lengths away from the funeral where no one could see them except the top of their signs over a building; the father didn’t even know what their signs said till he got home and watched the news later that day. Doing what the police told them to do while speaking their offensive message, the father’s suit got to a jury that decided it was intentional infliction of emotional distress and awarded $10 million. For the constitutional lawyer this was classic first amendment free speech which should have been protected against those sorts of private tort damages. He did allow that the Supreme Court left open the ability for the states to create privacy zones around funerals and that Maryland now has a law with which, if it had been in place for the funeral, the Westboro group would have been complying.

    Improvento agreed with the professor and noted that based upon the decision he himself called for the drafting of an ordinance in Norfolk and he is going to ask the other Hampton Roads municipalities to do the same. His argument is that a funeral is a flash point where a heightened level of public interest and order is present.

    Macrini: Now here’s an interesting one. Bruce wants to say: “Were the civil rights demonstrators in the ’60s inciting violence?”

    Bruce: …That’s the idea. If Mike’s argument is to be followed, through then, potentially Martin Luther King’s demonstrations not only could have incited violence, they did.

    Macrini: I thought that the argument was…was Martin Luther King saying things intentionally to cause emotional harm? No, he was saying things to secure individual rights for his people.

    Bruce: I think that the people that had the opposite feeling about what Martin Luther King was doing would have made the argument that he was in fact inflicting intentional harm on the reality as they saw it.

    Imprevento: Dr King’s process was a model for first amendment protection. Indeed, everything he said was a matter of public concern, because it had roots in reason, it had roots in history. “God hates fags” is not protected speech.

    Macrini: They’re saying things to hurt people, based, at the behest of a supernatural being. Which is not the same thing as demanding that Americans get their constitutional rights and their individual rights. I don’t think it’s exactly the same thing.

    Imprevento: I understand what Bruce is saying. I mean when somebody protested the war that you went to and burned the flag you could say that was a flash point. But again, that had greater roots in societal issues that didn’t cross the line that I think the Westboro Baptist Church does. And I think that on extreme circumstances…

    Macrini: Nothing King was doing was aimed at an individual family. It wasn’t aimed at individuals.

    Imprevento: It was two hundred years of persecution of a people through slavery. I mean the man’s attack was perfect. It was seeking the purest of civil rights. But he has a certain little point; he does. I mean a Viet Nam protest on a construction site would be a flash point, but that’s protected speech. But I still see this as going a bridge too far.

    Though it looks to be a beautiful spring day today, this show’s topic, the heterogeneous audience, and the edgy host promise a compelling and educational couple hours, between one and three, of something more than entertainment; a mid-day break from the yard. Despite my personal disappointment when Imprevento failed to arrange lunch for me with former Republican Representative Thelma Drake some years ago (another story), he has drawn me into his audience. Since the station does not produce podcasts of its programs, the live event, streamed via the miracle of the internet, may be the only opportunity to listen to this line of reasoning and the arguments it elicits.