Law isn’t well suited to protect people from being offended

The display of mutilated baby dolls in a Halloween tableau outside a Niles house is at most a temporary diversion, but it raises a serious legal question that even now is being considered by the Supreme Court of the United States. Does a person have a constitutional right to be offensive?

Some people who have seen the dismembered, scorched and “bleeding” baby dolls at Krista Smith’s “After Death Dollcare” exhibit on Main Street have been amused, others have shrugged, some have expressed annoyance that approaches outrage. Those who say that there ought to be a law have essentially been told there is a law, the First Amendment, and it favors free expression. It covers displays of mutilated baby dolls, even if some people may think impressionable children might be harmed by the grotesque images or that adults who have lived through the loss of a real baby might suffer emotionally from seeing the images.

“Don’t look” (and don’t let your children look) is the best advice that can be offered to those who do not share Smith’s sense of what constitutes Halloween fun.

A more serious case

But on a serious note, the Supreme Court is grappling with a case that takes offensive behavior about as far as can be imagined. Snyder v. Phelps involves the case of Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, 20, a Marine whose funeral was one of hundreds the group picketed by the Rev. Fred W. Phelps, a venomously anti-gay pastor who preaches that the United States is being punished for its tolerance of homosexuality.

It is a long way from Phelps’ Topeka, Kansas, church to Matthew Snyder’s funeral to a Niles Halloween display, but the principal that ties them all together is balancing freedom of speech in a civilized society. And while Phelps’ activities are far more offensive both in their vitriol and in their target — grieving families of fallen soldiers — Phelps can argue that he is not attempting to amuse, he is making what he considers to be a serious religious and political statement.

It is easy to say that there is no room in the United States for Phelps and his tactics — the tipping point being that he conducts his protests near the funerals of soldiers. But the Supreme Court will find it difficult to interpret the First Amendment in such a way as to define impermissibly offensive speech without opening the courts to an onslaught of suits in a society in which millions are eager to demand protection from being offended.

It would be better if we as citizens — from militant ministers to Halloween celebrants to motorists who play music with obscene lyrics just loud enough for others to hear — could be a little more civil.

Most people are able to find a way of expressing themselves and enjoying themselves without unduly affecting others — if they try.

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