Free Speech Working Both Ways
Originally published by The Washington Times March 3, 2011 —
Landmark court decisions often leave a peculiar fragrance behind, spawning a plethora of mixed feelings. Such emotional roller coasters may understandably look like a contradiction, but the truth is, feelings and laws are often owned in unavoidable tension with each other.
The latest Supreme Court case regarding Westboro Baptist serves as a perfect example. For years, the Westboro protesters have reared their unpopular heads in various places around the country, exhibiting a not so shy willingness to share fierce opposition to government policies that they feel promote homosexuality. A 2006 funeral for Marine Matthew Snyder was no exception. Snyder had been killed in Iraq. As it happens, Matthew Snyder was not gay. This did not stop the Westboro protesters from exploiting his death, using the opportunity to protest our military anyway.
Prior to the funeral, Westboro parishioners did inform local authorities of their intention to picket the service. Because they remained 1,000 feet away without blocking entrance to the funeral, they stayed technically within the law. Their signs were extremely provocative, saying things like, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags,” and “You’re Going to Hell.”
Snyder’s father decided to sue Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps. Originally, a jury awarded Mr. Snyder some $11 million in damages for invasion of privacy and emotional distress deliberately inflicted. The case was appealed and ultimately taken up by the Supreme Court, which ruled in an 8-1 decision that the Westboro protests were protected under our First Amendment. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion:
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain…On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Roberts also said that “Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.”
Justice Samuel Alito wrote passionately as the lone dissenter:
“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case…In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent.”
It is difficult not to sympathize with Alito in this case, but despite our justified emotions, the legalities relating to the First Amendment cannot be ignored. Speech is often offensive. Our forefathers knew as much. If speech was always going to be friendly, welcomed, and benign, it would not need protection. In an age with ongoing discussion about possible “Hate Speech” laws, Fairness Doctrines, or localism (a seemingly different discussion which actually resembles the Fairness Doctrine) we should be grateful for a Supreme Court responsibly protecting our rights to freedom of speech. Admittedly, it would be nice to have a law that protects free speech but lists the protest of a funeral as an exception despite the protesters being 1000 feet away. Unfortunately, human beings tend to do things in the extreme and they are not very good with “exceptions to the rule.” For this reason, even the slightest erosion of free speech should meet with objection. Yes, we already have certain qualifications such as laws against libel, but we are always treading upon thin ice where speech is concerned and must be very careful. Therefore, sadly, reluctantly, this writer agrees with the Supreme Court ruling.
Now then, to celebrate the reinforcement of our First Amendment liberties, allow me to exercise mine by sharing with my readers some candid opinions about Westboro Baptist Church: Their disgusting, hateful noise reminds us very little of the God they claim to follow and has much more in common with a foul pond scum. It is true that the Bible lists homosexuality as a sin (Romans 1). It is not true that God hates homosexuals. The Bible teaches that all of us are guilty of some kind of sin and the message of Jesus was one of forgiveness and healing.
To be fair, as finite human beings, we cannot read minds and it is difficult to assess motives, including the motives of Westboro Baptist. Maybe they believe with all their hearts that they are truly obeying God. Still, one wonders why the conscience God placed inside them is not kicking in with a little more skill. In any event, whatever their intentions, our country is left with the results: Westboro Baptist may have protested 1000 feet away but they are setting the reputation of Christianity back by 1000 years! Christian leaders everywhere should renounce this sick, twisted, miserable excuse for a church and instead point people toward our real God, a God of love and mercy. Make no mistake, Westboro exhibits behavior even a Christian apologist cannot defend.
Thank God for America, a land where our First Amendment freedoms allow us to speak out against congregations such as Westboro Baptist!
NOTE: For another article by Bob Siegel, comparing localism with the Fairness Doctrine, see 2011: Get ready for the Obamanet.
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net. Comments to posts are discussed by Bob over the air where anyone is free to call in and respond/debate. Call in toll free number: 1-888-344-1170.