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.
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
In one sense, the US Supreme Court this week did exactly what the Westboro Baptist Church has never been able to — it drew a distinction between the value of a principle (free speech) and its members’ feelings about those associated with it (in this case, a few fanatics carrying signs that say “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”). As many proponents of the ruling have recognised, it’s possible to love the right and hate those who exercise it at the same time. It may be hard, but it’s possible.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, on the other hand, have long exhibited a particularly odd kind of confusion, conflating dead American soldiers (who are not gay) with America’s tolerance of homosexuality (which has even less to do with the wars those soldiers died in). As more forgiving Christians like to preach: “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” This is a distinction Westboro Baptist clearly does not make (leaving aside the question of whether homosexuality is even a sin at all).
What the Supreme Court decision says is that we cannot confuse principle with personal animosity, the very offense Rev Fred Phelps and his family commit each time they demonstrate their ethical opposition to homosexuality within eyesight of a private funeral.
“Speech is powerful,” the Court ruled. “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.”
In the reaction to the ruling, many Americans are having a hard time drawing this distinction, compartmentalising hatred for Westboro Baptist from support for the core American principle of free speech even for those with whom we disagree. The individuals in question are just so vile, their attacks so clearly choreographed to achieve maximum offence, prodding America’s rawest nerves at the intersection of deference to the armed forces and respect for the dead. And Westboro Baptist isn’t making it easy on those angered by the decision to see its larger wisdom. Since the ruling, church members have gloated that the court has only encouraged them to picket even more.
Hearing this — and the anguished reaction of Albert Snyder, father of the dead soldier in question — the two most prominent US veterans’ organisations, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, have denounced the decision. So has a seeming plurality of the thousands of message-board commenters on news sites covering the story.
But in a strong sign that much of the furor is really aimed at Westboro Baptist itself — and not at the concept that people whom we dislike have free-speech rights as well — even First Amendment hardliners have found themselves caught in a moment of hypocrisy this week.
“Common sense & decency absent as wacko ‘church’ allowed hate msgs spewed@ soldiers’ funerals but we can’t invoke God’s name in public square,” Palin tweeted.
Tom Brokaw, a veteran broadcast journalist who should know the value of free speech (two-dozen media organisations swallowed hard and filed amicus briefs on behalf of Westboro Baptist) called the ruling “outrageous.”
Prominent Fox News talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, who regularly champions the Tea Party war cry that the federal government better not tread on individual freedoms, opposed the decision as well.
“With the rise of the Internet, cowardly sociopaths are running wild with hateful invective, outrageous smears and bullying tactics that have caused some kids to commit suicide,” he said on his show. “The Supreme Court needs to wise up. It’s not just about free speech anymore. It’s about personal destruction.”
Conservatives like O’Reilly and Palin found themselves in the awkward position of bashing a decision written by the right’s favorite jurist, Chief Justice John Roberts — and in the equally awkward position of agreeing with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I am very disappointed in today’s Supreme Court decision to allow hateful extremists to attempt to sully the memories of heroes who have fought and died to protect this country, and to heap more hurt on already grief-stricken families,” Reid said in a statement. “These families have only one chance to bury loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice. They deserve the right to mourn without being subjected to the ugly signs and slurs of fanatics.
These are visceral reactions, not well thought-out ones, and they come more from a deep-rooted desire to protect mourning military families than a necessary calculation over how to maintain the First Amendment. As time passes and the visceral unease wanes, opponents of the decision may come to see that the Supreme Court in fact showed nuanced tolerance of the kind Westboro Baptist would never be capable.
The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday by an 8-1 vote that the bizarre anti-gay funeral picketers belonging to the Westboro Baptist Church have a First Amendment right to free speech. Rev Fred Phelps and his crew have been waving placards with messages such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “AIDS Cures Fags” at military funerals to promote their belief that God is punishing the US for accepting homosexuality.
The Supreme Court decision (see below) overruled a previous award of over $10 million (reduced on appeal to $5 million) to the family of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder in relation to a protest at his funeral. Snyder’s father reacted by saying that the eight justices didn’t have the common sense that God gave a goat.
Should we be celebrating this as a victory for free speech? While no one would welcome a visit from the Westboro protestors at the funeral of a loved one, there are several distinctive features of this case.
First, undoubtedly debate about war, its causes and casualties is important. This was “speech” in a public place on an issue of public concern, even though the particular hypothesis is ridiculous and offensive. Free speech protection can’t, however, just be for views already presumed to be true.
Secondly, protestors were scrupulous about staying within the letter of the law. They knew that they had to remain 1,000 feet from the funeral, for instance, and did not shout or otherwise disrupt the service. Preventing such orderly protests on issues of importance would have been a serious attack on civil liberties, even though the protestors displayed gross insensitivity to those mourning.
So, yes, we should welcome this decision even though it protects bigots of limited reasoning ability about cause and effect who are indifferent to the feelings of the recently bereaved. The best response to hateful speech is surely counter-speech. At many recent military funerals, counter-protestors have arrived early in their thousands and occupied the prime spaces in the surrounding area. That is a far better reaction than a legal gagging order.
The Supreme Court is to decide next week whether members of Westboro Baptist Church have the constitutional right to picket military funerals. Al Snyder, the father of a US marine whose funeral was accompanied by the protesters’ anti-gay and anti-Catholic demonstrations is seeking damages for emotional distress. The fundamentalist church, which has said that it plans to protest outside the court, will argue on 6 October that its actions are protected under the First Amendment. Snyder says the decision isn’t a free speech issue but a “case of harrassment“.