During my years as an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, my daily Chic-Fil-A sandwich was usually accompanied by huge displays of aborted foetuses, or the charming words and signs of any of our homophobic, racist, and sexist preachers. Most of us found entertainment in seeing naïve first year students passionately try to reason with the irrational tirades of these people. While our campus police department and resource offices were bombarded with complaints, the brickyard remained a host for such hateful rants. The debate about free speech on our campus is not dissimilar to debates around Westboro Baptist Church, which keeps it classy with signs stating that “God hates fags” and “Thank god for dead soldiers”.
On 2 March, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the inflammatory group, protecting their right to picket the funerals of dead soldiers. The work of the church, which attacks popstars, the funerals of artists and anyone that they deem to be godless, is already divisive. The conversation becomes more emotionally charged when adding dead troops to the mix. It becomes difficult to focus on protecting free speech when insensitive picketers senselessly disturb the funerals of dead servicemen and women.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, two states, California and Illinois, have taken steps towards the rights of the church to picket the funerals of dead soldiers.
The California Assembly passed a bill to keep protesters away from funerals by a unanimous vote on 18 August. If the bill is passed, protesting within 1000 feet (305 metres) of a funeral during an hour before or after a ceremony would be “punishable by up to six months in jail” or a fine of $1,000.
On 14 August, a bill titled Let Them Rest in Peace Act was signed into law by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. According to the new law, protestors must be at least 300 feet (92 metres) away from funerals, and are barred from protesting 30 minutes before and after the funerals. Upon signing the law, Governor Quinn made the statement that “every family has a fundamental right to conduct a funeral with reverence and dignity”, and that it was the duty of lawmakers to honour the sacrifices made by soldiers.
The sponsor of the bill, freshman senator and Tea Party darling, Marco Rubio, said that he could not “imagine anyone being against it, at least no one in their right mind”.
What is problematic about Rubio’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” approach to such legislation is that it makes any dissenters look like insensitive monsters. Such a conversation is not framed for a healthy debate about free speech. It is no surprise that the decision in California was unanimous, as any senator that would comment against such a bill would inevitably see their words warped and used in an advertisement against them during the next campaign season.
Growing up in North Carolina, home of one of the largest US Army bases, Fort Bragg, I know that anything involving service men and women heightens sensitivity but legislators must focus on the long-term implications of such decisions.
The experience of repeatedly having obscenities hurled at me by one of the preachers made me feel threatened, and I wanted him silenced. Being called a whore in public does not make for careful consideration of the parameters of free speech.
Our university never banned the preachers, and now I respect that decision. Hate and ignorance can not be banned and preventing citizens from speaking on public property would set a nasty precedent. The only way to combat these groups is to fight back and speak up, rather than just try to silence them.
Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship