The inconveniences of freedom of speech

Shirley Phelps, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, pickets in front of the Illinois State Capitol building on July 18, 2011 to protest a KISS concert. Westboro Baptist Church members disapprove of Gene Simmons’ involvement with the “NOH8 Campaign” and his Jewish identity. (Photo by Rachel Metea)

Fred got a lot of hate mail. He didn’t agree with his country and he had let them know. Now, people wanted to make him pay.

They threatened him. They threw garbage at him. They painted vulgar pictures of his family depicted as devils. When Fred went to church they stood outside the building and blasted loud music, waiving the satanic painting for all of the church service to see.

People really hated Fred. He had followed all the rules, but that didn’t seem to matter. They did everything to keep his opinion from being heard. They even took Fred to court and won. However, Fred was relentless. He refused to be muzzled. He took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Fred wanted his message to be heard.

“God hates Fags,” “Thank God for 9/11” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” are a selection of the messages Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church waved at the funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phelps on March 2, energizing Westboro members to further spread their message proclaiming, “God hates homosexuality and hates and punishes America for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in the United States military.”

The First Amendment looks good on parchment. The Westboro story captured the nation, causing public outcry – a plea to change one of the most beautiful aspects of American law – Freedom of Speech.

I can understand why the father of a soldier killed in Iraq sued the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s hard not to become angry after hearing about what the WBC does. We demand justice.

But was the Supreme Court correct in its 8-1 ruling in favor of the Phelps? Absolutely.

The First Amendment is not exclusively for the protection of speakers we agree with.  Most importantly, it exists for the unpopular opinion, for those speakers who could easily be silenced without such protection.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that just as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan- one of the key decisions supporting freedom of the press, reflects, “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression, it is the essence of self-government.”

We live in a sad, terrifying world. Emotions often triumph over reason, an event that can have detrimental results. It is far more important to protect the integrity of the Constitution than to protect the public’s emotions. The repugnant speech must go on.

“Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt,” Roberts said.

Westboro’s speech was directed towards its dissatisfaction with the nation, not Matthew Snyder in particular. The picketers played by the rules, conducting the picketing 1,000 feet away from the church under police supervision. The protest was reportedly peaceful.

“Simply put,” Roberts said, “the church members had the right to be where they were.”

The government does not, and should not have the power to determine which types of speech are sufficiently offensive. Many Americans are outraged at the immoral acts of Westboro. However, Westboro shares similar feelings about Americans – it’s Freedom of Speech, baby.

The case boiled down to private versus public speech. As Connick v. Myers determined, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”

The majority of their rhetoric was not directed at any particular person. Rather, it was for their nation in its entirety. According to Roberts, Snyder could see “no more than the tops of the signs when driving to the funeral.” Additionally, the Snyder family were not held captive and forced to listen to the speech.

They followed the rules and their actions are a clear exercise of the First Amendment. They are not targeting anyone in specific.

So how do they do it?

In 1999, Kerry Lauerman wrote a profile of Fred Phelps in Mother Jones entitled, “The Man Who Loves To Hate.” While WBC’s protests covering high profile funerals – such as Bill Clinton’s mother – had been taking place for eight years, Lauerman wrote that it was unclear how effective the protests were.

“I think right now they just look mean and extreme,” said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign in the article. Birch admitted his demonstrations get press, but dismissed them as “callous behavior.”

“Phelps is hard to take seriously,” Birch said.

Twelve years later they have collected a wildly angry enemy base, won a Supreme Court Case, and influenced many states to enact more funeral regulations and laws.

The Westboro members are a smart batch of people.  Their case was a textbook exercise of the First Amendment – it should not have even gone to the Supreme Court.

Their sensational story, vulgar rhetoric, and powerful photo opportunities are a magnet for the media, a magnet to the public. They are a trademark of hate.

Rather than stoop to Westboro’s level and feed their fire, people must step back and find comfort in knowing the promise of the Constitution has once again been upheld.

My deepest sympathies go out to the Snyder family – and all other Westboro victims. However, as Roberts wrote, “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.”

Read this column on the DePaul University Journalism 514: Opinion & Column Writing blog.

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