The Penance of Free Speech
Your son or daughter decided to dedicate their life to military service. As a parent, you worried for their safety every second you were awake, but you were proud of the choices they made. You have showed pictures of your clean cut disciplined child to strangers, with your eyes shrink wrapped in tears with a sense of a job well done. Your child was fighting for our way of life thousands of miles away, imagining them going from diapers to AK-47’s, just so we can continue to enjoy the freedoms we have earned over the past 250 years.
One normal day, just like thousands before, Albert Snyder heard a knock on the door. A solemn fully uniformed Casualty Assistance Contact Officer looked him in the eye and took off his hat. Before the officer takes a breathe he collapsed to the floor, paralyzed with grief. Albert can’t even speak without screaming; his child has died. His son Matthew he remembered cradling in his arms and promised protection from all danger has died defending our country. This was never supposed to happen.
Once the grief subsides, and the funeral is planned, he puts on his bravest face convincing himself that his child’s death would not be in vain. There was a grander scheme for it; there was a purpose for it. When he made it to the church, surrounded by friends, family, and military personnel he sees a sign shoved in his face “Thank God for Dead Soldiers!”
In shock and disgust he pushes forward only to see "America is doomed,” "You're going to hell,” "God hates you,” "Fag troops,” and "Semper fi fags" with a group of people who screamed Bible verses at him with robotic repetition, and venomous hate. Shocked and filled with more rage he ever thought his body was capable of, he grasped for a reason behind all of this.
What did his poor, dead child have to do with all of these people? Why us? Why now? These are all questions Albert Snyder father of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder asked when their son’s funeral was picketed by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, after he was killed from a non-combat wound in Iraq. This was not an isolated incident; the Westboro Baptist Church has claimed to have held over 30,000 pickets, in all 50 states, in over 500 cities and towns. They spend their time protesting funerals, gay individuals that have been murdered, victims who died from complications relating to AIDS and other events peripherally related to gay culture.
In the eyes of the Supreme Court this is all well within the protection of the 1st Amendment. Cherishing our rights to free speech, religion, peaceful assembly, and freedom of press worth allowing the behaviors and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church? Risking weakening our constitutional worth forgiving Westboro’s behavior?
The Snyder family sued the Westboro Baptist Church for close to “11 million dollars which they initially won, bankrupting the church, but was later overturned in Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Westboro’s actions were protected under a law that was passed in 1988, where a minister Jerry Falwell was featured in Hustler Magazine in a Campari ad.
The ad used a double entendre “first time” as a euphemism for sex when it really meant first time drinking the Italian aperitif. Falwell sued Hustler for using his image in such a suggestive way. The court, after much deliberation, ruled in favor of Hustler magazine stating it was sheer hyperbole and fell under a rule protecting parody. The judge also stated that Westboro’s message is so outrageous it is protected under a law that protects parodies. The ruling that turned into a law states, “ … prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them.” (Hustler v Falwell)
Fred Phelps, the figure head of Westboro, states that as soon as the Matthew Snyder’s obituary hit the newspaper or internet it makes the deceased a public figure, therefore making him subject to public interest. The case between the Snyder family and Westboro’s Phelps family set another landmark in the litigation against First Amendment lawsuits, making their actions completely within the limitations of the law. The First Amendment now protects such pickets, as long as they abide by the state’s rules of impeding on private property, and obey all police direction.
Westboro feels that their message is not one of hate, but a warning from God himself. They believe that condoning a homo-sexual lifestyle in our popular culture is a catalyst for all sin, and wrath God will bring upon Earth. They simply stated in an interview with Anthony Karen from the Washington Post, “We do not hate. It’s simple, if you are a probate, the Lord will pickle you in that sin, and blind your eyes, and stop up your ears, and harden your heart so you will never have means to escape.” Westboro maintains the position that the acceptance of homo-sexuality in our society is the root problem of our whole society. They protest the military funerals because they are fighting for a country that supports that alternative lifestyle.
They picket political, and high profile funerals since it was a message from God that his abhorrence of homosexuality, and maintain that’s it’s a warning not a message of hate. They use the media attention to create awareness in their message, and they are the mouthpiece of the Lord himself.
A judge during the Snyder v. Phelps case, Supreme Court Justice Judge Sonya Sotomayor asked Fred Phelps, “Why should the First Amendment be forced to tolerate exploiting funerals when there are other mediums for getting across your despicable message?” Phelps replied with a simple, “Stop sinning.”
At what risk do we preserve the right of free speech at any costs? Law professor at Cornell Steve Shriffin, who specializes in First Amendment Law, weighs in saying, “The First Amendment allows [one] to say whatever [one wants], but not whenever, and certainly not wherever.” The law states that you may say whatever you want for any reason no matter how offensive, but it is popular belief that there has to be guidelines, no matter how loosely based. Letting these actions continue under the protection of the law is an insult to the people who fought hard to give us those exact liberties. The Westboro Baptist Church is abusing the liberties they were given in order to intentionally hurt and harass people who are at their weakest. Albert Snyder was quoted in court saying, “In my opinion, the speech from the [Phelps’] and the Westboro Baptist Church carries beyond all bounds of decency of what can be tolerated in a civilized nation."
In life, there exists the most offensive, and borderline illegal material that can turn your stomach; it is protected under the First Amendment.
What makes that content different is that it stays on the internet, offensive music stays on the shelf, offensive programs stay on the TV, and they do not come to you. That is where the line is crossed. Whether you want them to or not, the Westboro Baptist Church comes to you and forces their controversial agenda upon you.
In order to preserve the freedom of speech, and expression do we allow such heinous acts to continue as a human race? Where is the line drawn and the law dissected enough to where we can allow one thing and not the other. We cannot block out everything we disagree with, but we should have control over what we are subjected to. The First Amendment should not envelope all forms of free speech. Laws created 200 years ago should evolve with the needs of society. If it means sacrificing a certain form of expression, the First Amendment should limit such actions involving the Westboro Baptist Church and their right to picket funeral, no matter what fraction of our freedom it costs.