The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that anti-gay protestors who picketed funerals of U.S. soldiers are entitled to their free speech. But does this freedom come at the price of basic human decency?
Honestly, I’m really not sure what to think about this.
An 8-to-1 majority affirmed a lower court judgment that threw out damages awarded to Albert Snyder, who first sued Westboro Baptist Church for emotional distress he endured after the church protested at his son’s funeral. His son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, died in Iraq in 2006.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said today’s ruling is a narrow decision, dealing strictly with Westboro’s picketing activity.
“Speech is powerful,” Roberts wrote. “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,” he said. “That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the United States, and certainly, silencing people’s views often ends up backfiring. It’s like suppressing negative thoughts. For awhile, things are ok, but in the end, whatever was pushed down returns, often more forcefully. Marginalized and fringe groups who are shut down sometimes end up turning to violence, feeling that killing people and destroying things are the only ways to get heard. So, I tend to align myself with efforts to allow people to speak.
At the same time, our government and courts don’t have the same allegiance to free speech when it comes to people whose views are seen as “a threat” to government policy in some form. Just last fall, several peace activists here in Minnesota were arrested on trumped-up charges linking their public actions to terrorist organizations, and threatening them with jail time. That’s just one example. So, I find it hollow to listen to powerful people defend the rights of Westburo Church members to spread hate at funerals of all places when others’ speech is less respected by the law.
In addition, whenever one of these decisions occurs, there seems to be a lack of connection made between freedom of speech and the fact that with freedom comes consequences. Saying Westburo should be free to say whatever they want without fear of tort liability is kind of disturbing. It can send a message that speech has no real consequences other than people getting angry and upset at you.
And let’s move beyond that to the fact that they are doing these protests at funerals; that this mostly single-family “church” is appearing at an intimate event where they have zero connection to the people there — who are grieving, who are suffering, who are viewing the event as part of their healing process — and they are using this event to spread vile hate messages. If funerals are now public events open to anyone who has an axe to grind about anything, well, I find that deeply troubling. I don’t think this court decision explicitly says funerals are public and wide open, but it certainly could be interpreted that way going forward.
So, I’m torn. How about you?
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