Statements about free speech are made very flippantly in the west. The laws of most countries strike a balance between free speech and other rights. Even the United States -- which is often cited as the epitome of speech permissiveness -- has laws limiting expression for offensiveness or vulgarity. In Canada, laws are even more draconian, though Canadian nationalists will smugly assert their country's moral high ground rejecting suggestions from their southern neighbours.
The continuing free expression of ideas is of great importance -- hardly anything is more important and the curtailing of speech should be limited purely to cases where immediate physical harm is imminent as a result, even if this means tolerating the ideas of extremists.
Free speech is a topic that is perpetually being debated and there is hardly a more controversial platform for the debate than Fred Phelps and his small Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC goes around America protesting at military funerals with signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." The group has already been denied entry into Canada and Britain and it seems America alone will allow them to conduct the protests. However, even they got fed up with Phelps's hate-mongering and several state legislatures have enacted laws forbidding protests at funerals. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act." Phelps and the WBC crowd are currently going through a lengthy appeal process at the Supreme Court after being sued by the family of a fallen soldier whose funeral they crashed in 2006.
The WBC found an unlikely ally in the American Civil Liberties Union, who supports the Phelps family's case for all the right reasons. There is no reason to sacrifice the principles of free expression because of offence. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution presented a theoretical idea. "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms presents a similar idea about everybody having "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression." The different interpretations of the same concept the countries came up with is simply a result of history: The United States was born from a revolutionary tradition while Canada simply adopted British customs. Yet, neither country has accepted the doctrine of free speech to the extent that it should have.
Open dialogue is always preferable to censorship. Few things are more important to a democratic society than the free expression, discussion and exploration of ideas no matter how stupid, controversial or dangerous (surely no idea can be dangerous in itself). The burden of proof is upon the people who wish to suppress free speech for reasons of offence, obscenity or politics to show why those count as valid reasons. Some deem that people are too stupid to be able to decide for themselves what ideas to accept and which ones to ignore. That sentiment is in direct conflict with the liberal foundation of our society which holds that humans are fundamentally reasonable. To express a distrust of people's abilities to explore ideas is to bring into question liberal democracy.
Attempts to suppress an idea often lead to its increased popularity and willingly ending a debate leads people to forget why it was debated. Some European countries are doing themselves an enormous disservice by attempting to keep the past undiscussed by, for example, banning or limiting the sale of racist and anti-Semitic literature and forbidding symbols like the swastika or hammer and sickle. The idea that permitting simple geometrical shapes will lead Europe back down a slippery slope into its authoritarian past is absurd. The banning of books like Mein Kampf could be seen as making more sense but is an even more dangerous action. Banning Hitler's book (which is practically banned in Canada considering the Indigo/Chapters monopoly removed it from their shelves) only creates the impression that we have something to fear from Nazism on an intellectual level. Any idea as stupid as Nazism (especially when expressed through a book as mundane as Mein Kampf) will be readily dismissed by a populace educated by the permissiveness of dialogue.
This applies to the Westboro Baptists, as well. Of course, we disagree with them and find their ideas ludicrous; therefore, their speech requires more protection to stop free expression from being taken away by majority rule (which is what the Constitution seeks to prevent).
Regardless of offence or speech not meeting the standards of "decency" often prescribed, we should do whatever we can to protect and preserve it. A healthy nation is marked by the expression of ideas free from societal or governmental intervention unless it steps into the boundary of government's mandate (e.g. to protect the security of its citizens). Other than this, we should be appalled at any form of censorship. This way, Evangelicals and Neo-Nazis can't play the oppression card. Let's allow Phelps to spew his garbage. Once they have the freedom to speak, we have the freedom to not listen.
The unfettered dissemination of ideas is nothing to fear.